It must be tough to stretch a Dr. Seuss short story to the length of an 82-minute feature. Maybe that explains the abundance of potty jokes, barf bags, crotch assaults and sexual innuendoes that provide the filler in “The Cat in the Hat.”
The mischevious title character, played by Mike Myers, even moons the bored siblings, Sally (Dakota Fanning) and Conrad (Spencer Breslin), who spend a rainy afternoon with him. He also produces an impressively long burp that rivals the number of seconds it takes for Will Ferrell to do the same in “Elf.”
The story is essentially the same one Dr. Seuss created in 1957 and adapted in 1971, when he provided the script and lyrics for a half-hour television cartoon. The cat, a bewildering mixture of anarchy and responsibility, makes a mess of the kids’ home while mom’s away. As it turns out, it’s all in a good cause - he’s entertaining Sally and Conrad and their pet fish - and he does know how to make it look as if nothing’s wrong when mom returns.
Allan Sherman’s voice brought an unflappable coolness to the cartoon “Cat,” but Myers seems to be channeling Bert Lahr’s cowardly lion in “The Wizard of Oz,” even to the point of indulging in a sentimental moment at the end. What was natural in “Oz,” however, seems entirely inappropriate in “Cat.”
The movie works so hard to achieve a sense of whimsy that you feel exhausted long before it’s over. Sean Hayes, who used to be funny, all but assaults the camera as the horrible Mr. Humberfloob, a germ-fearing boss who delights in firing people who shake hands with him. Hayes also turns up as the voice of the pet fish, who is trapped in a jar and announces, “I wet my jar.”
Alec Baldwin spends a lot of screen time chewing the scenery as another heavy, Quinn, a slobbish neighbor who is courting the kids’ single mom (Kelly Preston) and threatens to send Conrad to military school. Quinn is such a wonderfully awful character that it should be satisfying to see the cat provide his comeuppance by covering him in purple goo, yet even this moment of sweet revenge feels irrelevant.
The first-time director, Bo Welch, worked as production designer on Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands,” which featured a toy town that looked a lot like the one in “The Cat in the Hat.” Unfortunately, he lacks Burton’s ability to turn such locations into a compelling dream world. The colorful buildings just sit there, as if waiting for their closeups.
The producer, Brian Grazer, ran into some of the same problems three years ago when he tried to expand another Dr. Seuss story, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Although the film flopped with most critics, Jim Carrey’s manic performance as the holiday-hating Grinch turned it into a box-office bonanza.
There’s nothing as vital going on with Myers, who seems especially out of his element when he’s trying to sing the skimpy songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman (the Tony-winning team behind “Hairspray”). The picture desperately needs a movie star at its center, and Myers mostly draws a blank.
John Hartl is the film critic for MSNBC.com