Film

Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Just in time for Thanksgiving: the Paris Hilton movie.


Dr. Seuss' the Cat in the Hat

Director: Bo Welch
Cast: Mike Meyers, Alec Baldwin, Kelly Preston, Dakota Fanning, Spencer Breslin, Amy Hill, Sean Hayes
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Universal Pictures
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-11-21

Just in time for Thanksgiving: the Paris Hilton movie. Or more precisely, one of the Paris Hilton movies in circulation this year, including Wonderland (where she plays a bikinied yacht girl) and that other one all over the internet (where she reportedly plays herself). And here she is again, in The Cat in The Hat.

It's true that our girl only appears for a few seconds, in an underground rave, bobbing her blond head and exhibiting her famously slender shoulders while dancing among a throng of glowstick-wielders. While Paris might have her reasons for being here, the stretch of plotting that has the Cat (Mike Meyers) and his buddies for the day, Sally (Dakota Fanning) and Conrad (Spencer Breslin) crashing to the party is surely strained. The children look on in wonder, as they do through much of this cumbersome movie, and the Cat gyrates. And then they leave, on to the next adventure.

It may be worth pondering just why director Bo Welch (who previously directed Tick episodes and designed sets for Tim Burton) and piled-on writers Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer have expanded Dr. Seuss' classic tale to get the Cat to a rave in the first place. But let's not.

As in the book, the film has the Cat coming to rescue young Sally and Conrad from their boredom as they gaze out their window in the small town of Anville. But this Cat is not charming or sweet. He's not exciting or neat. He comes crashing into their lives, a sledgehammer of boffo entertainment so egregious that even the children doubt his uses. On his arrival, he announces that they have two options for curing their low scores on the Phunometer (she's a control freak and he's a rule-breaker: can you guess what life lessons they'll learn by film's end?). They can choose: 1) a series of painful injections or, 2) a musical number by the Cat Himself.

Thoughtful mini-manager Sally wisely inquires after the injections, but no good. The Cat launches into an extravaganza that has him dressed up in a series of garish outfits (Carmen Miranda, a matador) and juggling several objects (from the book, as I recall): an umbrella, a rake, a cake, etc. From here, Meyers goes on to channel performances by others and his own past characters in order to cobble together the Cat. Plainly if intermittently, he draws from Bert Lahr's majestic Cowardly Lion for broad accent and bluster, as well as from his own Fat Bastard, Austin Powers, Goldmember, maybe a bit of Wayne and Linda, all mushed together to come up with a Cat who is shockingly uninteresting. "Oh yeah!" he repeats whenever called on for faux "commentary" on a peculiar event. It's not exactly poetry.

All the Cat's frightening activity -- and especially, the leeway it grants Meyers -- more or less emulates producer Brian Grazer's other, humungously profitable Seussification, 2000's How the Grinch Stole Christmas (which everyone remembers gave Jim Carrey a similarly unnecessary latitude to act up). It's not long before you're feeling sympathy for the kids, as they are beset by one self-loving performance from the Cat after another. And then, you see why the Cat looks like a good thing when you see the alternative mannish figure: they are besieged daily by purple-suited next-door neighbor Lawrence Quinn (an appalling Alec Baldwin), who seeks to marry their mom and be rid of his Oedipalish competition by shipping Conrad off to a military academy. How original.

Mom, by the way, has a name and a job (unlike in the book). Joan (good sport in pink Kelly Preston) spends much of the movie at work, that is, a real estate office where she's verbally assaulted by her flibberty-gibberty monster of a boss, Mr. Humberfloob (Sean Hayes in hyperdrive: someone please give him a chill pill). Assigned to host the office party on the evening of the day the film takes place, she warns the children especially that the place must remain immaculate or she will be fired. And so, of course, they are increasingly anxious as the Cat's shenanigans disrupt and ruin the house.

As tedious as the plotting of The Cat in the Hat surely is, the supposedly goofy and hijinksy material is equally annoying. Though its frantic pacing, illogic, and convulsions might seem appropriate for kids who watch cartoons, the jokes tend to be laborious (see, for instance, the spastic Thing 1 and Thing 2, the latter for some reason adopting the nickname "Chocolate Thunder"), for the most part, the movie lacks that light touch that makes the books so much fun to revisit. Not least among its offenses is the babysitter, Mrs. Kwan (Amy Hill), whose thick glasses, Mimi Bobeck-ish makeup, "Chinese" accent, buckish teeth, and absolute inability to stay awake for more than 20 seconds are all -- in a word -- horrendous.

Here's an idea: spend the afternoon reading the book, with your children or on your own. Splendiferous fun for all.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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