Do you remember the first movie that made you realize movies could be bad? As a child, you don’t comprehend that a movie can be bad, because it’s so entertaining. How can something not be good if you like it?
For most of my adult life, I’ve credited Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland with being the one that made me realize movies could be bad. While that’s true, I think it’s because I had forgotten about the 2003 Mike Myers vehicle, Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat. Made following the commercial success of the Jim Carrey-led How the Grinch Stole Christmas, I remember thinking that the movie was weird and not very funny, and ultimately forgetting about it.
Of course, we are in the midst of a global pandemic, and without anyone able to come to my house and beat me up for blasphemy, I am happy to report that upon revisit, The Cat in the Hat is good, actually.
Before we get into the meat of it, we need to discuss the team behind the film because it informs so much of what makes The Cat in the Hat fascinating. The director, Bo Welch, is a production designer known for several Tim Burton films, including Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman Returns. The writers were all alumni of Seinfeld, and the cinematographer? Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer behind Children of Men, Tree of Life, The Revenant, and many of the other best looking films of the 2000s. Add to that one of the lesser Newman brothers, and you have a behind-the-scenes team for the ages.
Tim Burton’s influence pervades throughout the entire film, especially in the production design. Sets and costumes of pastels and deep greens, pinks, yellows, and purples dominate the visual landscape of the film, and create an effect of artificiality that permeates throughout every frame. The cinematography is heightened, with so many fish lenses and odd angles that it’s as if the world is stilted.
Of course, we need to talk about the cast, and we’ll start with the Cat himself, Mike Myers. The costume is, yes, horrifying, and maybe subconsciously the reason the cats in Cats were CGI’d, and not practical, but it adds to the absurdist tone of the film. Literally who would want to be friends with this thing? Somehow, it works. There is an insane energy to Myers performance that, coupled with the cinematography, set design, and editing, creates this firing-on-all-cylinders air to the whole production. Of course, given that Welch was a first time director, it’s clear Myers exerted major creative control over the performance, and the sense of humour. There is also an account by Amy Hill, who plays Mrs. Kwan, of Myers being a “diva” on-set.
The entire cast is hilarious, too. Spencer Breslin and Dakota Fanning have great chemistry, with Fanning stealing every scene she’s in with this dry sense of humour even adult entertainers sometimes miss the mark with. Alec Baldwin is so smarmy and charming in a way we almost never see in a post-30-Rock-and-SNL-Trump way. Sean Hayes plays a great double-role as Mr. Humberfloob, Ms. Walden’s germaphobe boss, and the by-the-book fish, which feels like it’s trying to say something about rules.
The whole film is like that. There are so many references to authority and government (the Taiwanese Parliament joke is so weird in this film but it’s so funny), that it feels like a grown-up comedy hidden in a recognizable children’s IP. There is such a weird sexual undertone to a lot of the film, and I cannot believe that “Dirty hoe!” made it past the censors. The Cat in the Hat has so many faux-sentimental moments, with an upbeat pop song in the climax that Myers calls attention to. Everything in the movie feels sarcastic and absurd, and I can see so clearly why this didn’t work for me as a kid; it completely flew over my head.
It’s so strange, because I feel like this film simultaneously would have been beloved right away if it had been released in a post-YouTube world, where the democratization of video-making allowed for some genuinely strange comedy to exist, while also feeling so of its time. In 2003, it only made sense to have a third Myers-Smash Mouth collaboration (following Shrek, and Goldmember), which is so clearly a studio note. Of course Paris Hilton would just randomly have a cameo. Of course there would be an extended bit about Martha Stewart, which is genuinely one of the funniest scenes in the entire runtime.
The Cat in the Hat is an enigma that has only become clear to me with age and, admittedly, with a lot of time in isolation. Yes, this film is critically derided, and is the reason why there are no more live-action Seuss adaptations, and we have to settle for the bland mediocrity of The Lorax, and The Grinch, but it is way more fun than we remember it being. It is a film with the most barely-there plot and moral compass that is focused more on balls-to-the-walls insanity, which maybe appeals more to adults than to kids. There are so many things about this movie that I find fascinating but I know I would be writing this piece for far too long if I went into everything. I’m glad I decided to revisit it. I think you should too.