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The Cat in the Hat Does Paris

Dr. Seuss's classic comes to the big screen with style, barf jokes, and a newly-minted porn star.

11:00 PM, Nov 20, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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MY BIG IDEA, the one that's going to let me to quit my day job, join the Metropolitan Club, and buy Kay Graham's old place in Georgetown, is this: A pay cable channel for kids. Think of it like HBO, but airing only kid shows, 24 hours a day. You could charge $15, $20, maybe $25 a month and parents would buy it because here's the hook: No commercials.

The anti-TV movement is only nominally about the content of shows. It's really about the advertisements. Kids who watch "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and the like on network and regular cable are bombarded with ads for goods they'd otherwise neither need, nor know about, nor desire: toys, cereals, candy, you name it.

For example, if you subscribed to my pay channel, there's a good chance your kids wouldn't be pestering you to see "The Cat in the Hat" this weekend. Twenty-five dollars a month? A bargain at twice the price.

AS PREVIOUSLY NOTED, the only reason "The Cat in the Hat" exists is so that super-producer Brian Grazer and the good folks at Universal could try to cash in on the success of Jim Carrey's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" with a sort-of, kind-of sequel.

In that respect, they have succeeded. The gestalt of "The Cat in the Hat" is very similar to that of "The Grinch"--the two movies share set designs, color palettes, and facial prosthetics. Most importantly, they have the same attitude toward source material, which is to say an oblivious disrespect.

Like the book, "The Cat in the Hat" takes place on a rainy day, when a magical Cat appears to entertain two bored children. Unlike the pair in Theodor Geisel's original, these children belong to a conspicuously unwed mother (Kelly Preston) who is dating a mean-spirited, lay-about neighbor (Alec Baldwin) who is intent on marrying mom and shipping her eldest child off to military school. Also, the Cat's magic opens a vortex to another dimension which threatens to suck our universe into his, bringing about the end of the world. Or maybe it would just destroy the kids' house. On this point, Alec Berg's screenplay is unclear.

The children at the screening I attended were unperturbed by this ambiguity, and, what with all of the vomit, booger, and groin jokes, who could blame them. Yet while it's full of Nickelodeon-style mayhem, "The Cat in the Hat" also strains to deliver the type of knowing, adult humor that many people claimed to find in the 2001 hit "Shrek." There is, for instance, a clever spoof of infomercials and a brace of lawyer jokes nestled in between scenes of exploding purple goo.

The most parent-friendly, or at least father-friendly, aspect may be Kelly Preston's performance. Preston displays more cleavage than any kiddie movie character since Jessica Rabbit. It's no wonder Alec Baldwin's evil neighbor is lusting after her. Baldwin, by the way, was always a serviceable leading man, but he's wonderful here as a comic heel. Kudos to him for taking the risk. The only other actor on screen having more fun than Baldwin is Dakota Fanning who, as the younger sister, gives a performance as laudable and promising as Christina Ricci's turn in "The Adams Family" more than a decade ago.

Then there's Mike Myers. For some reason Myers chose to play the Cat as a cross between Linda Richman and Rip Taylor. As interpretations go, it's a bold one, since nowhere in the canon does Seuss suggest that the Cat might be a Jewish prop comic. Still, it's better than Jim Carrey's decision to play the Grinch as Ace Ventura.

None of which is meant to suggest that "The Cat in the Hat" is any good. But it does represent an improvement of sorts. "The Grinch," as produced by Grazer and Universal, was a morally offensive film. It took the sweet residents of Whoville, turned them into greedy, small-minded Babbitts, and then taught the audience that real wisdom comes from the mouths of children, who are the source of all virtue.

By contrast, the lesson in "The Cat in the Hat" is that children need learn moderation. This message is buried under low-brow humor and crass, ironic commercialism (at one point the Cat pitches the audience on going to the Universal Studios theme park in Florida), but still, one supposes the filmmakers deserve some sort of credit. Perhaps by the time they get to "Yertle the Turtle" they'll rise to middling.

FINALLY, there's the matter of Paris Hilton. Miss Hilton makes a momentary appearance in "The Cat in the Hat"--a two-second cameo, during which the Cat gives her a randy once-over. It is a completely disposable scene, one which should have been cut two weeks ago when the story of the young lady's pornographic video first surfaced. The sages at Universal no doubt went into fast and serious deliberations trying to determine whether the Hilton cameo would hurt the film or help it. Obviously they settled on the latter.

Let's leave alone the thought that perhaps porn stars--so welcome now on network television, glossy magazine covers, and Times Square billboards--should stay out of kids' movies. (However, speaking for myself, I wouldn't want to catch one of my favorite childhood movies, say, "The Cat from Outer Space," on TNT next month and suddenly realize that one of the women who bumps into McLean Stevenson is Linda Lovelace.)

No, the real question is, what is the cutoff age at which children seeing "The Cat in the Hat" this weekend will connect the dots and understand who Paris Hilton is and why she's famous at this particular moment?

Parents afraid to learn the answer to this question will surely squirm in their seats during "The Cat in the Hat." A commercial-free pay channel for kids? It'd be like selling umbrellas in the rain.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.