The Cat's Meow

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2003

"The Cat in the Hat" is so good it breaks your heart for not being better. It is kept from brilliance by a soggy climax and a clumsy central narrative device. But, you say, what else is there? How could there be much more? After all, this is a movie adapted from a poem of a few hundred words about two kids alone in the house on a rainy day who are tempted toward mischief by an imaginary puss in a funny hat.

Actually, though, there's quite a lot, and why not begin with Dakota Fanning? The 9-year-old is breathtakingly fresh and funny in the movie, in ways that are astounding. Well-trained child actors can usually do a very good job of following instructions given by grown-ups, and they come across, winningly enough, as little mimics obeying their masters. The goddess of this technique was Shirley Temple, cute as pie, dimpled as a new Titleist, but somehow weirdly disconnected from all that went on about her. She was so perfect, she was kind of horrifying.

Fanning seems on a different level. She's actually acting in the most meaningful sense of the word, creating in her imagination a character, defining a personality for that character and communicating the character's internal states through nuance, gesture, inflection and presence. It's something called a performance, not an imitation, and she's eerily believable as Sally (you know, the daughter of Mom, that Sally), who is the prissy counterpoise to her more anarchistically inclined brother, Conrad (Spencer Breslin, adorable but not as adorable as Fanning).

Sally is the kind of kid who puts "Making tomorrow's to-do list" on today's to-do list, right after entry No. 3, which is "Be more spontaneous." Sally represents that legion, that swarming endless mass, of good daughters who want so much to please and try so hard. Thus all that ensues in this film -- chaos, the collapse of moral order, the pursuit of the grail, the descent into hell, the flight from hell, the vanquishing of the dragon and the miraculous restoration of moral order (and cleanliness) -- ensues twice. It happens in real space-time and once again, more intensely, as reflected upon the delicate face of Sally, whose gradations of twitch and double take, of tilt and turn, of narrowed or widened bright-blue iris, Fanning controls with the precision that can only be ascribed to genius.

Dr. Seuss was hardly a gusher by nature, and after 12 sweaty hours of coming up with three or four good rhymes, he probably and sensibly retreated to the vodka. So the filmmakers must inflate. They inflate far less, though, than did the makers of the more ungainly, ungodly and undead "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (2000), and they inflate far better.

Here's the back story that sets up the ordeal by cat: Single mom (Kelly Preston, adorable, and those legs, why . . . oh, sorry) works for Mr. Humberfloob, an officious prig of a real estate agent played with toothy, delicious pedantry by Sean Hayes. She tries to raise her two kids in a small Seussian burb: Levittown as designed by an anal-retentive interior decorator with a Frank Lloyd Wright complex and a warehouse full of lavender paint.

Two issues cloud the day. First, it is Mom's turn to host Humberfloob Realty's "Meet Your Realtor" open house, which means her house must be perfect, and so the kids have been ordered into a state of perfect stillness. The second is that her next-door neighbor, an oleaginous unction in white shoes and mauve double-knit suit named Quinn, played at the level of human stain by Alec Baldwin, is pitching woo toward her continually, yearning to tie the knot.

But there's another issue, I suppose. In all this perfection, one thing is imperfect. That's young Conrad, who misses (or mourns) his father, a pathology all the more powerful for not being openly stated. He mistrusts the father replacement figure, Quinn, and therefore acts out. You know he'll destroy the house before the open house can happen, his mom will lose her job and be forced to marry the petrochemical product Quinn, and he will be sent away to a military academy, which isn't called, but should be, "Obergruppenfuehrer Nietzsche's Dungeon of Discipline for Boys Who Are Very Bad." What a perfect delineation of childhood, yours, mine and ours: You know it's wrong. You do it anyway. You're a kid.

So the two children are alone (the babysitter, Mrs. Kwan, has fallen asleep), trying to be good, trying not to do what their worst natures mandate and, of course, it's raining, when, enter, stage left . . .

Well, what the hell is this thing? No, it's not Dr. Seuss's Cat in the Hat. It's Mike Myers's Cat in the Hat, which seems to be constructed of equal parts Linda ("I'm verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves") Richman and that other famous movie man in a cat suit, Bert Lahr in "The Wizard of Oz." That is to say, he's got the voice of Ms. Richman and the body language and weirdly ironic, self-mocking laugh of the Cowardly Lion.

But who, really, is the Cat in the Hat? Does he stand for childish anarchy and rebellion, the urge to make messes and run away? Does he stand in some way for infant sexuality? When he releases his minions Thing 1 and Thing 2 from a locked crate, is he liberating the ego and superego? (One expert: "The hat, obviously, is a phallic symbol.")

But wait. I know. I think . . . he's a cat. And, he's in a hat.

So the cat tempts the kids. He charms them with juggling tricks, he has magic ways of appearing and disappearing, he lures them toward destruction without consequence. Do this, do that. Have fun. Kick butt, don't take prisoners, play that funky music, white kids. Meanwhile a fish (the voice is, again, Sean Hayes's) warns them to behave. ("The fish," one scribe notes earnestly, "is clearly a Christ figure.")

Soon the Cat has got them in open rebellion against the tattletale neighbor Quinn, and they're off on a chase to recover the key to the crate out of which popped the two house destroyers, Thing 1 and Thing 2. The business of the "quest" for the lock to the crate is awfully thin; nobody could come up with a better armature to get the whole crew out of the house?

The director, Bo Welch, is a former production designer (of "Men in Black" I and II, to name a few of his hit films), and so in some ways the film seems more production-designed than directed. Sometimes the design works, sometimes it doesn't. It works, alas, least well when it should work most well. This is in the movie's climax, in which the mess that Thing 1 and Thing 2 (in themselves not gripping movie illusions) render unto Mom's perfect house is supposed to be the mother of all messes, a mess so biblical in scope that it encompasses all the schools of art and architecture, an eighth-plague-upon-the-Egyptians kind of mess. But it looks more like an Ocean City miniature golf course after a hurricane had dumped it in the Fun Fair roller coaster. It's just sort of a mess, worth a few seconds of film at 11 but not a lead story.

The best thing in the film is the fabulous state of Dakota, which is always pitch perfect, and when she's not at the center of the movie, you miss her. The second best thing is the fabulous Hayes. The third best is the volcanic Baldwin spewing a lava of hot grease and insinuation wherever he minces. Myers is funny, but he doesn't quite pop madly like you'd want him to. And that fish? What a drip.

The Cat in the Hat (78 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild violence and crude double-entendres.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company