- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

In the specialized competition among holiday-season family movies, “Elf” already enjoys a decisive novelty advantage over last week’s “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” and this week’s “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat.”

Despite its unflagging ingenuity and gusto, “Back in Action” got off to a discouraging start at the box office. Now Mike Myers, a “Saturday Night Live” fixture of the 1980s, faces an uphill battle to overtake “Elf’s” Will Ferrell, an SNL fixture of the 1990s. Unless I miss my guess, Mr. Ferrell is sitting pretty with the more companionable and child-friendly title character.

To its credit, “The Cat in the Hat” doesn’t echo the weariest defects of its immediate predecessor, “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000), a heavily engineered Christmas whimsy directed by Ron Howard. Both movies were produced by Brian Grazer, who employed the same team of writers for “Cat,” a bad omen that falls short of calamity.

At 105 minutes, the Howard remake seemed to transform Jim Carrey into a beast of burden, yoked to a ponderous, studio-bound, live-action fantasy. Half an hour shorter, “Cat” lightens the burden for Mr. Myers, a virtuoso whose flair for masquerade farce is permitted a fresh showcase as a benevolent intruder, an impresario of chaotic play who is ultimately willing to clean up the messes he makes.

The film’s shortcomings cling to other characters and performers, cast in roles that have been padded or invented to justify feature length. The sorriest example is Alec Baldwin, accentuating his recent decline, as an ill-conceived interloper called Quinn: a lecherous, treacherous neighbor with designs on single mom Kelly Preston, a full-body version of the briefly glimpsed parent in the source material, a whirlwind primer of 1957.

Poaching a little rashly on “American Beauty,” the screenwriters identify their absentee mother as a real-estate agent avid to please a tyrannical boss, Mr. Hummerfloob. He is a phobic twit impersonated by Sean Hayes, who also supplies the voice of the anxious, straight-laced pet fish who objects to the uproar created by Mr. Myers.

“The Cat in the Hat” is most successful when the star is relishing his masquerade and interacting with the very able juvenile cast members, Dakota Fanning and Spencer Breslin, as siblings Sally and Conrad, who presumably conjure up the Cat as an imaginative response to boredom.

Mr. Myers is also in good form when interacting with himself; perhaps the funniest single sequence places him in the kitchen, pretending to be a cooking-show host as well as his chuckling, wisecracking, mischief-mongering self. He borrows vocal inflections from a trio of revered comics — Bert Lahr, Phil Silvers and Ed Wynn — to give the Cat a distinctive talking identity. Since all were still going strong when the book was published, the choices are apt. Mr. Myers definitely makes them harmonize from one spiel to the next.

The director, Bo Welch, is a former production designer who became something of a specialist with fanciful settings: he worked with Tim Burton on “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands” and with Barry Sonnenfeld on the “Men in Black” comedies. He seems more comfortable with unreal surroundings than Ron Howard, who struggled with the lavishly claustrophobic Whoville in “Grinch.”

Mr. Welch stretches the field of play. Getting out of the house that sufficed as a playground for Dr. Seuss’ Cat, he scurries off to nearby houses and a town called Annville, constructed to look blithely sketchy and confectionary.

Mr. Welch’s re-enactments of the housebound slapstick in “Cat” probably benefit from the contrast provided by outdoor chases and shenanigans. I’m not sure he could improve much on the scenes that remain faithful to Dr. Seuss.

However, it’s difficult to overlook the fact that there’s more farcical invention and elasticity in “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” perhaps because it draws on scores of cartoon associations rather than a single, albeit “classic,” children’s book. This book’s sort of playfulness may not cry out for an elaborate movie transformation.

**

TITLE: “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat”

RATING: PG (Occasional comic vulgarity and sexual innuendo)

CREDITS: Directed by Bo Welch. Screenplay by Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffner, based on the book by Dr. Seuss. Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Production design by Alex McDowell. Costume design by Rita Ryack. Special make-up effects by Steve Johnson. Visual-effects supervisors: Kurt Williams and Douglas Hans Smith. Original Songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Music by David Newman.

RUNNING TIME: 73 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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