If Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat were a Broadway show, it would close out of town. Too bad it's a movie supported by obscene amounts of merchandising and a baby-boomer audience yearning to see a childhood favorite brought to the screen and updated for their kids.

The title is painfully misleading. This picture isn't Dr. Seuss' slaphappy-elegant creation; it's another overstuffed monstrosity from the producer (Brian Grazer) and the uncredited rewriters (Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer) of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Dr. Seuss' book is about a magical, vaudevillian talking cat who rids a passive suburban brother and sister of fear and boredom with the aid of hyper sidekicks called Thing One and Thing Two. This movie is mostly about a late-night comic who treats the kids as a captive audience.

The filmmakers may think they've put Mike Myers in a Cat-in-the-Hat suit; instead they've put the Cat into a Mike Myers suit. The seemingly feckless feline becomes Myers' vehicle for kindergarten bodily function gags about lactose intolerance and hairballs, for tasteless homages to Carmen Miranda's camp Latin chanteuses and Dan Aykroyd's butt-revealing handyman, and for riffs on infomercials and product placement.

Is a plug for Universal Tours any less shameless because Myers' Cat treats it as a joke? Is a pun about a "dirty" garden "hoe" any more wholesome because Myers delivers it with an attempt at waggish charm? And what is an in-joke about the Cat dancing with Paris Hilton at an underground club doing here at all?

Myers tries to wing it with bits and pieces of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion, the prime-time animated hipster Top Cat, and his own recurring Saturday Night Live characters, including Coffee Talk's Linda Richman. All might have been forgiven if he or the designers gave the character some physical finesse. But without the daffy long-necked profile of the Seuss drawings, this Cat always looks squashed under his candy-striped chapeau. And Myers never executes a satisfying leap or lope as he flings himself across the sets. This is no hep cat - he's a spring-driven lump.

Everything about the film is off. The Things become elongated spitballs with Marge Simpson hairdos and the human characters become behavioral object lessons. Conrad (Spencer Breslin), a rebel without a clue, and Sally (Dakota Fanning), a goody-two-shoes, must face up to each other's failings and bond as siblings. They must also help their hard-working real estate saleswoman single mother, Joan Walden (Kelly Preston), and get her to see through the slimeball neighbor who is courting her, Lawrence Quinn (Alec Baldwin).

When the filmmakers glide through the constantly washed and trimmed town and suburbs of Anville, and introduce Sean Hayes as Joan's clean-freak boss, Mr. Humberfloob, they appear to be pillorying consumerism and conformity and Americans' fixation on sanitation.

But that undercurrent doesn't flow into the rest of the movie (or indeed into the pop marketing universe that supports this kind of film). Joan wants to keep her job, Sally wants to belong with the other well-scrubbed young-'uns in the neighborhood, and the bad guy isn't Hayes' prissy Humberfloob but Baldwin's Quinn, a secret nose- and navel-picking slob. (Hayes is funnier in his second role as the voice of the no-nonsense talking fish.)

The first-time director, Bo Welch, has been a gifted production designer, working with Alfonso Cuaron on A Little Princess and Tim Burton on (among others) Beetlejuice. He could have learned from Burton's cartoon Vincent that to re-create Seuss' giddy, mind-opening aura you must echo his fluid pictures, airy layouts and catchy, limber tempo.

Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat is gorged with shtick and gadgetry. When it comes to highlighting everything better left in the dark, it makes even the Matrix sequels look like works of genius.

The Cat in the Hat

Starring Mike Myers, Spencer Breslin, Dakota Fanning, Kelly Preston and Alec Baldwin

Directed by Bo Welch

Rated PG

Released by Universal

Time 82 minutes

Sun Score *

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