I actually promised this review to Maria and Grey for last week, you know. Oh, don't look at me like that. I did have it in on time... sort of. You see, when I volunteered to review the movie The Cat in the Hat, I realized that I didn't actually have a copy of the book. Oh, horrors! Well, thought I, this is a perfect excuse to pick it up, and to pick up Cattus Petasatus as well. So I hopped on to Amazon and ordered them up. Unfortunately, Finagle's Law holds sway here at the Green Man offices as much as anywhere else in the Universe, and the rush-delivery package took an extra three days to arrive. By the time it got here, I had already shrugged and turned in an actually rather pleased review of the movie. However, when I finally read the book, I threw my hands up in the air, cursed in Latin for several minutes (Mater glis erat et olens sabucis pater! Foetorem extremae latrinae!), and ran for Mia, to ask her if I could possibly have that review back, thanks very much...
Most of the time, I hate watching movies made from books I love. They nearly always spoil it for me. When I heard about this new version of The Cat in the Hat, I was alternately hopeful and despairing. I like roughly one out of every two things Mike Myers does. Would this, could this, just possibly, be one of the good ones?
I refused to reread the book before watching the movie, knowing I'd enjoy it more the other way 'round. So I ran through my head what I could remember of Dr. Seuss' famous book. My memory, as it turned out, had been much damaged by adulthood, and I think owed more to the animated version than to the book.
Two children, left alone and bored on a rainy afternoon, are most startled to find on their doorstep a large black-and-white Cat in a tall red-and-white Hat. Against the advice of their fusty goldfish, he begins to show them tricks and games, along with his friends Thing One and Thing Two. Having made an enormous mess of the house, the Cat and the Things are ordered out by the children. He returns, however, to show them one more good trick... He picks up after himself.
And, broadly, that's what happens. The problem is, and always was, that there simply isn't seventy-eight minutes of material in that book. It was only with the addition of some musical numbers and a three-handled moss-covered family credenza that they even managed to stretch it to a half-hour for the 1971 animated version.
So what did they add?
Well, let's start with Joan (Kelly Preston), the (single) Mom, who has an actual part in this movie, and is not just a pair of legs. Move on to Mr. Humberfloob (Sean Hayes), Joan's obsessive-compulsive, verminophobic boss. Joan is supposed to host a Meet-and-Greet party that night for some of the real estate agency's post important clients, and Mr. Humberfloob has threatened to fire her if her house is as messy as it was the last time. Now, add Joan's boyfriend, the too-shiny-to-be-true Quinn (Alec Baldwin), who hates young Conrad and wants to ship him off to military school. Speaking of Conrad (Spencer Breslin), our young hero is a contrary and adventuresome rule-breaker, while his sister Sally (Dakota Fanning) is a hyper-organized control freak whose first on-screen appearance shows her making a To-Do list on her lime green PDA. Other additions include Mrs. Kwan (Amy Hill) the substitute baby-sitter and the fact that the crate from which Thing One and Thing Two emerge is a doorway to the Cat's home, and if it is not kept locked, it will leak and create the Mother of All Messes.
Sound like we've got enough to make a feature-length film? Yeah, just about. Sound like fun? Well... yeah, actually... as long as you can stomach Mike Myers...
Strict purists may balk, but all of the essential elements of the original story are here, and are reasonably good. The Cat, the kids, the rain, the fish, the Things, the magic, the mess. Myers pulls off the Cat's madcap ways (plus, inevitably, some SNL-style impersonations and a variety of jokes aimed at the grown-ups), and although he is not as debonaire as the animated version, he is still very much a Cat. He manages to play Up-up-up with a fish quite well, in addition to one or two other straight-from-the-book scenes. Conrad and Sally are the archetypal versions of kids we all know and sometimes manage to love. The fish is even more histrionic than than his literary counterpart... and the Things are perfect. No, really. Kites and tennis rackets and tall blue hair. There are even decent-sized chunks of the text of the book.
Visually, it was Dr. Seuss from beginning to end. Even the Universal and Dreamworks logos were in aqua, red, and white. Everything in the movie was oddly shaped and tinted in tertiary shades. It was all oversized, too, to get that child's-eye-view perspective. The town did look a bit as if Tim Burton had been involved in set design (I kept being reminded of Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice), but then Tim Burton's work always looked a bit as if he read too much Edward Gorey on top of too much Dr. Seuss anyway.
The special effects are fun and jazzy and occasionally quite enchanting. I was particularly fond of the first glimpse of The Mother of All Messes, with the book-birds flying across the screen. The journey into the Mother of All Messes is sure to spawn an amusement park ride (as was pointed out in the movie in one of its more irritating moments). The crab-lock ("Mine!") was adorable, and Fish was just fun.
Now, on to the down sides.
Look, if you've read any of the other reviews out there, you know that the down sides are what most people have focused on. As far as I can tell, almost all of the general objections boil down to one thing: Mike Myers.
Myers is less of an actor and more of a comedian. He has been since 1988, when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. And since then he's been doing more or less the same stuff, with varying degrees of success.
Myers, as the Cat, spends a lot of time doing impersonations, satirical mini-sketches, mildly ribald remarks, and asides a-la Wayne's World. These are all apparently aimed at adults, and have brought on most of the harshest criticism of the movie. Some of it, most adults who like his work will find amusing. Some of it just seems out of place. Kids, depending on age and temperament, will either be puzzled, mildly amused, or bored to tears.
Some of the Myers-styled jokes do seemed to be aimed at the kids, but nearly all of these are of the mild gross-out variety. It seems to be the only kind of humor he can think of for children. Personally, I didn't like it as a child, and I don't like it any better now.
The musical numbers were lackluster and seemed to be present only because someone felt that they ought to be there. The characters were pretty two-dimensional, but no more so than I've come to expect from most kids' movies these days. I was also more than a little disappointed at the inclusion of a moral, even if it was only mildly intrusive. This is Dr. Seuss, not Jan Berenstain.
If you've got a slightly odd sense of humor, you may enjoy reading the credits. Titles like "Lead Cat Sculptor" and "Lead Thing Hair Technician" gave me the giggles. The credits did leave me with one question, though: Where was the Tasmanian devil footage?
This version of The Cat in the Hat isn't going to become a classic. It dates itself pretty thoroughly. It won't replace actually reading the book for most kids, since there's something just really cool about reading those rhymes yourself. Lots of people are going to hate it. Despite this, I had a lot of fun with this movie, and, after a mildly miserable day at work, considered it worth the cold, the long waits for buses, the hunt to find the theater, and even the icy drizzle through which I made my way home. I can't think of anything nicer to say about it than that.
And now for something completely different... The Cat in the Hat in Latin.
I mentioned in my introduction to this review that I took the excuse, um, opportunity, when I volunteered for this review, to order a book called Cattus Petasatus. For those unfamiliar with Latin, this means "the cat with the traveling cap on." Yes, someone did translate that book. (You'd be amazed at what else has been translated into Latin. One of these days, Grey will catch me with my guard down and talk me into reviewing Winnie Ille Pu.)
When they took on this project, translators Jennifer Morrish Tunberg and Terence O. Tunberg wanted to capture the feel of the rhythmic, rhyming verse of Theodore Geisel. Unfortunately, the rhyme-scheme of The Cat in the Hat goes very poorly into Latin. Instead, they selected trochaic verse, a Medieval Latin form with lines of eight syllables in which the last two syllables of each line must rhyme.
The result is charming to the ear. As soon as my package arrived, I opened it and headed down to the break room, when I read it aloud to those hanging out there. Not a one of them knew any Latin, but they had to admit, it sounded like a Doctor Seuss story.
It also came complete with all the classic illustrations... even the cover and endpaper are the same. The only changes to these were the two onomatopoeic sound effects, which were changed to words more in keeping with Roman conventions (a nice touch, I thought).
But how literal is it? Well, let's take a quick look.
The first page of the original reads:
The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house
All that cold, cold, wet day.
The first page of Cattus says:
Imber totum diem fluit
Urceatim semper pluit.
Taedet intus nos manere:
Numquam potest sol splendere.
Literally, the Latin comes to something like, "All day the rain pours, always raining by the bucket. It wearies us to remain inside: never is the sun able to shine."
Not, you may think, terribly close. And yet it's no less literal than many Latin-to-English poetic translations I've seen. It gets the point across, and it does so in a verse than manages to convey the feel of the original.
The whole book is like that: everything is here, and the story is the same, even if it doesn't translate literally. Thing One and Thing Two become Maius (greater) and Minus (lesser), and if I would, perhaps, have preferred that the names be neuter instead of masculine (to play on the Thing angle), well, I can see the awkwardness of that for a name.
At the back of the book, you will find a two-page summary of trochaic verse, how to read it, its history, and why the translators chose it. English and Latin versions of this are provided. Following this is a complete glossary of all the words used in the book. The inclusion of this means that one needs only a little knowledge of Latin grammar to read.
This is a book to make people who've considered taking Latin, but decided not to because "it's a dead language," run out and sign up for a class. Certainly it made me immediately pull out my Wheelock's to brush up on third conjugation verbs. It's part of an ever-growing movement to translate modern favorites into Latin. Now there are alternatives to rereading Caesar and Pliny. Instead, the student looking for something easy to practice on can choose from Dr. Seuss, A. A. Milne, J. K. Rowling, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and others.
Go on, discover the wonder in a whole new language.