The Cat in the Hat
½*/**** Image A Sound A Extras C+
starring Mike Myers, Alec Baldwin, Kelly Preston, Dakota Fanning
screenplay by Alec Berg & David Mandel & Jeff Schaffer, based on the Dr. Seuss book
directed by Bo Welch
*/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Charles Dutton, John Carroll Lynch
screenplay by Sebastian Gutierrez
directed by Mathieu Kassovitz
by Walter Chaw The vaguely infernal Dr. Seuss classic is given an overtly infernal treatment in the most excruciating rape of a beloved childhood memory since The Grinch (another Brian Grazer abomination), the replacement of director Ron Howard for production designer Bo Welch a case of bad for worse. I'd love to be able to say that The Cat in the Hat is inexplicable because I'd love to be able to be naïve about why and how films like this are made, but I fear by now I'm all too familiar with ideas of populism, condescension, the supremacy of opening weekend box-office, and the toxic belief that entertainment for children needn't hold up to the same kind of scrutiny as entertainment for non-children. Byzantine in the number of ways in which it declares its disdain for film and moviegoers, The Cat in the Hat is also crude, low, and proof at last (with Pieces of April) that Sean Hayes should stick to television, where it's easier to change the channel. There's a built-in audience for this picture (most of which will feel a little ill afterwards), it's going to gross an obscene amount, and it's proof positive that when large amounts of money are at stake, there are really no depths to which some people will sink to try to grow it.
The real tragedy of that greed is the betrayal of the faith of a contingent (not talking about the diaper set, which, let's be fair, would be almost as pleased watching Baby Mozart again) that must suspect the film is garbage, but hopes against hope that it's not. Abandon hope all ye who enter, for The Cat in the Hat introduces into Dr. Seuss's classic bedtime rhyme erection euphemisms, cleavage to be leered at, "shit" carefully spelled out so as to exclude everyone under the age of four or so from the merriment, obsessive-compulsive disorder, "son of a bitch" as an epithet, a bit about a "dirty ho" ("Aww, I'm sorry baby, you know I love you"), and the beloved Cat (Mike Myers) cutting off his tail with a cleaver and stalking a child with a baseball bat. Flanked by a retinue of lawyers, the Cat offers bored control freak Sally (Dakota Fanning, typecast) and Neanderthal knuckle-dragger Conrad (Spencer Breslin, typecast) a phonebook-thick "fun without consequences" contract that renders the whole production weirdly Faustian, while a Taiwanese babysitter (Amy Hill) naps through the proceedings in Coke-bottle glasses after a brief sequence in which footage of a brawl in Taiwan's parliament is dubbed with the soundtrack from a kung fu picture. It's called "racism." That the kids (their mother, Kelly Preston, playing her traditional "cipher with tits") live on something called "Liplapper Lane" is called "cheap entendre." That Myers imagines the Cat as a cross between his "Coffee Talk with Linda Richmond" character and Snagglepuss (that is, Sen. Joe Lieberman) is something called "a limited actor in the last spasms of fame."
Somehow look past the vulgarity of the piece--the sexism, the racism, the rip-off of Beetlejuice, the crotch shots, the demonic overtones, the self-abnegating post-modern snarkiness, the two musical numbers, the fixation on cute dog reactions, the obsessive tribute to Nickelodeon's purple goop, and the appearance of Paris Hilton as some sort of subterranean party girl slut (yes, typecast)--and what remains of The Cat in the Hat is merely boring, incomprehensible, cacophonous, and ugly. The production design is aggressively displeasing, the direction is curiously static, and the only saving grace to the whole thing might be Alec Baldwin's sleazy performance as a guy who, wisely, wishes to send Conrad to military school and marry, unwisely, the bimbo mother. The only case that could be made for The Cat in the Hat is as some sort of black satire meant to punish well-meaning parents for being dumb enough to believe that the wit, intelligence, and useful anxiety of the Seuss source material could ever be honoured in this format with this creative team. How curious that the best family film of this season is still the marginally entertaining Elf, looking better every day.
Also somewhat demonic in a lost sort of way, actor-turned-director Mathieu Kassovitz's haunted asylum flick Gothika features lines like "he opened me like a flower of pain" mumbled in Penélope Cruz's inimitable mumble while spending a lot of time on "circumcised" cigars, crossing bridges, Lacanian mirror theory, rain-filled ditches, baptism metaphors, and other bullroar trundled out by folks in over their heads and paddling like mad. Cruz offers the Yodaism "are you scared? You will be" to fallen shrink Miranda Grey (Halle Berry, who should not be playing someone with an advanced degree) when Miranda finds herself first possessed, then an inmate in her own nuthouse. Oh, the gothic irony as Kassovitz films all his interiors in different shades of Hammer dank and all his exteriors in driving allegorical rainstorms.
A terrible opening featuring Berry, Charles S. Dutton (as Berry's head-administrator husband), and poor Robert Downey Jr. (not surprisingly at home in a rehab prison) wrestling with Sebastian Gutierrez's gravid screenplay for what seems like hours segues into Miranda meeting a ghostly spectre (Kathleen Mackey as the girl from The Ring) on a lonesome road and, apparently, killing her husband, Lizzie Borden-style. Psychobabble ensues as Gothika turns out to be a lot like Instinct with a different Oscar-winner (and wouldn't the film have been better with Cuba Gooding Jr. as a slow-witted psychiatrist?) while the interesting sizzle of Satan and the ultimate sources of evil and vengeance (handled with more grace in J.T. Petty's similar, if infinitely superior NYU student film Soft for Digging) are left to falter in the wake of the typical mainstream thriller shuck and jive. The guilty parties are obvious from the first frame on, and just the number of times Miranda is referred to as "brilliant" should cause the least observant to cock an eyebrow.
Though a ghost seeking to avenge her own death through a mortal avatar is nothing new to the genre, the lengths to which Gothika goes to obscure its low aspirations with gobbledygook, clumsy red herrings, and cheap scares that don't make sense anyway are markedly innovative. If the ghost needs Miranda's help, why is it beating the crap out of her, getting her in car accidents, and trying to drown her? Think about it. The film is a shot in the dark shot almost completely in the dark, a murky, ugly exercise that devolves into exploitive theatrics and goes some way towards demonstrating Berry and Cruz as extraordinarily limited actors that need to choose their projects with a little more care.
With a hilarious coda of "logic is overrated" covering both the film and its existence (ditto The Cat in the Hat), the theory goes that Gothika is the "adult" option this weekend to combat The Cat in the Hat. Another theory follows that Gothika is the sacrificial lamb, a film not good enough to get a weekend where it could succeed on its own that's banking on the rejects of a sold-out first choice (as well as parents dropping kids off at a movie they know will be excrescent) to make its quickstep into obscurity easier to bear, what with a juggernaut lubing its way. Better to trust your instincts and abhor the vacuum sucking away at the middle of our popular culture--the more of this swill is slopped up, the more of this swill is made, and no matter how bored you might feel this weekend, it's not worth letting the devil into the house. It's obvious advice, but here goes: Read Seuss to the kids instead. Originally published: November 21, 2003.
by Bill Chambers Universal releases The Cat in the Hat on DVD in competing widescreen and fullscreen editions. The former presents the film in a lush 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, although it must be said that flesh tones bear that "Universal jaundice" I've yet to experience with another studio's DVDs. (Everybody looks much healthier within the supplementary outtakes and deleted scenes here.) Emmanuel Lubezki's images have a startling three-dimensionality, and the film's intense colour palette is otherwise not only exquisitely rendered, but also miraculously devoid of bleed. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is appropriately cartoonish, if lacking in low end; the mix is most active after the Cat's crate is opened and the house is transformed into an Escher-ish netherealm.
Bo Welch, a hell of a production designer, a tone-deaf director, and a puerile comedian, pairs up with Alec Baldwin for a feature-length commentary in which the two begin by insinuating that "recent immigrant" Lubezki was nearly deported in the middle of the shoot. Lubezki, who's worked steadily in Hollywood for nearly two decades and understands light better than almost any living cinematographer (take a gander at Ali or Sleepy Hollow), commands a teeny bit more respect than Welch and Baldwin afford him in this reductionist banter, which frankly inspired too much dread for me to keep on listening. (What's it like to give Kim Basinger a black eye? Oh Alec, just jerkin' your chain.) The remaining extras are split between Dakota Fanning- and Spencer Breslin-themed interfaces--select one or the other through the main menu by threatening to poke either child with jutting-finger icons. Why not have Michael Jackson pop out of a jack-in-the-box while they're at it?
The disc puts the "ette" in featurette. Spencer's or "Conrad"'s sub-menu touches on Rita Ryack's designs for "The Hat" (2 mins.) (Myers jokes that he could tune in the CBC with the magnets used to secure the various hats to his head), the challenge that led to the initial writing of "The Cat in the Hat" in "The Real Dr. Seuss" (3 mins.), the Cat's car in "S.L.O.W. Means Fast" (2 mins.), precocious child actors Fanning and Breslin in "The Kids on the Set" (3 mins.), the homage to Seuss's iconic illustration of the Cat balancing stacks in "The Cat Stacks" (2 mins.), and the self-explanatory in "The Mother of All Messes" (3 mins.). (The living-room vortex was created on-set and it's actually kind of neat to see.) Also find a 9-step "Dance-a-Long with Cat" tailor-made for the very young or very stupid, though not for the faint of heart: throughout, the Cat shields his face from the camera to disguise that he's not Mike Myers, but the effect is pure Phantom of the Opera.
Dakota or "Sally" is hiding "The Dirt on D.I.R.T." (2 mins.), a bit on the vacuum cleaner and its CGI arms. (Why they couldn't consolidate all of the material about CGI into a solid F/X featurette is beyond me.) Mike Myers says he looks like an Amish elf in "The Cat" (3 mins.), Welch's, nay, Alex McDowell's expressionistic backdrops are explored in "Seussville, U.S.A." (4 mins.), Welch offers that fish bowls are full of urine (honestly, who makes that kind of connection?) in "The Fish" (3 mins.), Jean Picker Firstenberg (as haughty as her name suggests) of the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee expounds the process for choosing a new postage design and Dakota narrates a shockingly informative tutorial on the manufacture of stamps in "The Purrr-fect Stamp" (3 mins.), and composer David Newman shows off his modified instruments, such as a rather Seussian trumpet, in "The Music" (2 mins.). A 17-minute block of deleted scenes in 4:3 widescreen consisting of unfinished CGI, unfunny gags, and unwatchable Thing One and Two escapades (who are those creepy-ass actors, anyhow?), a 6-minute outtakes reel that shows Sean Hayes blowing his lines, and forced trailers for Peter Pan, Shrek 2, and the original "Cat in the Hat" TV special round out the platter.
Warner's Gothika DVD contains a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film (pointless fullscreen version sold separately), a commentary, and more. I was none too crazy about the grainy, desaturated look of the picture, a metallic gloss that has become too commonplace to be an effectual mood-enhancer. Top marks for this presentation, though, with its rich blacks and minimal edge-enhancement. Also impressive is the Dolby 5.1 audio, especially the way the bass beefs up the stingers (i.e., jump scares). (The rear channels could've stood a bit more attention, but that's a quibble for the sound designers.) DP Matthew Libatique joins director Mathieu Kassovitz for a lively feature-length yakker that betrays the fast-tracked nature of the production--sets are discussed as if still fairly new to their eyes, while Libatique laments a lack of prep time. In truth, I was on their side the second Kassovitz referred to Charles S. Dutton as "Roc"--it seemed to relieve Kassovitz's pop protests of their disingenuousness. As on the Abandon DVD, Libatique doesn't bother with user-friendly synonyms for photographic terminology--he recognizes that, whether you understand the lingo or not, his presence is inessential if he doesn't openly discuss his craft. Gothika's trailer plus another depressingly exploitative video for another self-pitying and unmelodic Limp Bizkit tune, "Behind Blue Eyes" (wherein the repugnant Fred Durst robs another actress (Halle Berry) of her dignity), cap off the disc. Originally published: March 22, 2004.