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Friday, November 21, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Mary Brennan
Since its 1957 debut, Dr. Seuss' thrilling, deliciously anarchic "The Cat in the Hat" has been one of the most popular and beloved children's books in the world. With the box-office success of Jim Carrey's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," it was probably inevitable that the long-delayed live-action movie adaptation would finally get to the big screen.
It's here, with Mike Myers as the titular stovepipe-hatted Cat, the original rap artist, who descends on two kids stuck at home on a rainy day, turning their tedium into first delight and then terror. Their mother has asked them to do one thing behave but before they know it they've fallen under the Cat's seductive spell and almost destroyed their house in a frenzy of fun.
There has been some inevitable but nonetheless unfortunate updating of the story. Some of this is necessary, of course, to turn a slim kids story into a full-length (just barely, though) movie. The center of things is still the Cat and the kids reckless Conrad and his prim sister, Sally.
The children's mother, named Joan Walden (Kelly Preston), is now a single parent/real-estate agent who works for the tyrannical Mr. Humberfloob, played by Sean Hayes (Hayes also provides the voice for the animated goldfish, who keeps reminding the children how much trouble they're going to be in). Joan is also dating the man next door, a sneaky salesman named Larry ("call me Lawrence") Quinn.
Alec Baldwin plays Quinn, whose plot to marry Joan includes a plan to send Conrad away to military school. "It's just like summer camp," he explains, "except for the soul-crushing discipline."
From the beginning, the most striking thing about "Cat" is the art direction. Some of the production design is almost startling: a little Seussian suburb filled with too-tall lilac houses, exquisitely coordinated Willy Wonka-ish finery for even the most distant extra in the frame. But that shouldn't be surprising: "Cat" is the first film directed by Oscar-nominated production designer Bo Welch, who counts "Men in Black," "Edward Scissorhands" and many other memorably stylized films to his credit.
Welch definitely creates a wildly colorful look for the film; there's no visual detail left to chance. What he isn't so good at, unfortunately, is making us care about these characters, or reining in Mike Myers' uneven and sometimes grating performance. The movie is a string of overdesigned set pieces, few of them very engaging.
The tone is inconsistent as well, veering from innocuous slapstick fun to oddly adult humor.
But then the accent wavers, and so does the performance. Sometimes the Cat is coy and knowing, winking smugly at the adults in the audience; sometimes he's for kids. He's never really all that much fun.
In the end, the movie has some mildly amusing moments, but it completely lacks the wild glee and irresistible rhythm of the book. The filmmakers seem to have forgotten the most basic lesson taught by the Cat: "It's fun to have fun, but you have to know how."
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