Cat Scratch Fever 

Producer Brian Grazer fares better with his second attempt at Dr. Seuss.

Sally (Dakota Fanning) and Conrad (Spencer Breslin) are two kids sworn to keep their mother’s house neat on a rainy day while their babysitter naps on the couch. The family’s pet goldfish (voiced by Sean Hayes) suffers continuous humiliation while the Cat in the striped stovepipe Hat leads the kids on a series of stunts designed to teach them the importance of responsibility within the limits of wild abandon and liberation.

The story opens in a real-estate office where single mother Joan Walden (Kelly Preston) works under the furious pressure of her obsessive-compulsive boss Mr. Humberfloob (Sean Hayes) whose favorite phrase is “You’re fired!” Joan is scheduled to host an important business party at her ideal house, situated in a fanciful neighborhood where everyone drives the same car and mows the lawn everyday — twice if necessary. Herein lies the subtext of subverting the ’50s American Dream that Dr. Seuss, or Theodor Seuss Geisel, inserted between the rhymes in his not-a-little anarchic book.

While little control freak Sally busies herself with her daily checklist on an electronic organizer, her rambunctious brother Conrad is busy in the kitchen, preparing for a ride down their long twisting staircase with loaves of bread and bags of popcorn to serve as padding. Conrad’s joy ride comes to an inauspicious end as his mother opens the front door just in time to send him flying out onto the sidewalk. Enter the smarmy next-door-neighbor played by Alec Baldwin, dressed all in purple, to wheedle his way into Joan’s house in a droll attempt at convincing her to send Conrad to military school so he can marry her. From here the battle lines are drawn. Joan sends for her lazy little-old-lady babysitter (Amy Hill) and gives strict instructions to the kids not to go into the living room where she will host her party that evening.

First-time director Bo Welch started out as a production designer on movies like “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “Men In Black.” Welch’s immense experience with overtly vibrant visual compositions is on display in every frame of the movie, but he never allows the brimming visuals to overpower the characters or the surprising subtlety of Myers’ humor.

The power of the story is that the Cat is conducting impossible shenanigans for the kids to experience, but with an unseen control that we trust as somehow still being responsible. Even the mildly bawdy humor that slips past on a few occasions is presented with definite authority. But it’s the dynamic pacing that Welch uses to snap laughs from the audience with Myers’ brilliant backspin delivery.

“The Cat In The Hat” is a much lighter story than “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” and comes across more easily than producer Brian Grazer’s other Dr. Seuss effort, which starred Jim Carrey in the title role. This is a genuinely funny kids’ movie with the best comedian for the role, having as much infectious fun as Jack Black in “The School of Rock.” The genius of Mike Myers lies in the little nuances. Seeing him chop off part of his tail while baking cupcakes is a moment of high humor — even if the adults don’t all think so. And I’m sure their kids will. *** S


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