Landing on Its Feet

A.O. Scott of The New York Times called it “a vulgar, uninspired lump of poisoned eye candy.” Ty Burr of The Boston Globe wrote, “If the producers had dug up Ted Geisel’s body and hung it from a tree, they couldn’t have desecrated the man more.”

The little ones will beg you to take them to The Cat in the Hat, but you may have to come up with a different holiday diversion. (Elf, perhaps?) For a movie that is supposed to teach kids how to have fun, it is excruciatingly painful to watch. At the end of the nearly 90 minutes, I could feel only anger. The film assaulted my childhood memories of the fun-loving cat and made me want to protect my kids from his creepy grin—and I don’t even have kids.

It appears the film can survive the horrid reviews. It took in $40 million at the box office and became the No. 1 movie in its first weekend. That’s good news for the dozen “Cat partners” who chipped in to the film’s estimated $100 million marketing bonanza. It’s not such good news for the public at large.

Mike Myers and Universal Pictures have taken the original Cat in the Hat—gentlemanly and mischievous, but never crude—and turned him into a vulgar Austin Powers character. The movie is saturated with all the sexual innuendo and scatological humor a PG rating can hold. True, kids today may love gross-out humor, and they may be more sexually aware than kids were in 1957, when the book came out. But does that mean 4-8-year-olds need to see an overgrown alley cat who farts and pukes and needs to be neutered?

The last Dr. Seuss book-to-screen adaptation, 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, was supposedly aimed in part at adults who fondly recalled the 1966 TV cartoon version. But a Universal exec told the AP that The Cat was made “solely for young children.” Now that’s funny. If that’s true, why does the Cat’s candy-striped top hat grow when he ogles Kelly Preston in a tabletop portrait that unfolds like a centerfold? Why does he long to lick a “dirty hoe” in a garden gag? It’s meant to keep older kids and grownups entertained. Too bad it’s all in incredibly poor taste.

And yet Burger King, Pepsi/Frito-Lay, Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft, MasterCard, Rayovac, Smucker’s, the U.S. Postal Service and Procter & Gamble’s Home Care division are all hoping some of the magic of the American classic will rub off on them. The film’s characters are plastered on 500 million product packages, from cookies and cereals to batteries and postmarks. A “Priceless” MasterCard commercial shows the Cat buying presents in a toy store, while P&G uses film footage to tout a bevy of cleaning products—Swiffer, Febreze, Mr. Clean—in an ad showing the Cat using fantastic contraptions to clean up a Seuss-size mess.

With so much marketing overwhelming the senses outside the theater, what is most noticeably absent inside it (aside from laughs, of course) is product placement. Sure, there’s the convertible Ford Thunderbird that Alec Baldwin’s character tools around in and the Ford Focus cars the townspeople drive. But paid participation was prohibited, says a Universal rep, to stay true to the fantasy world. Still, that doesn’t stop Myers from pausing the action during a theme-park-ride sequence to deliver a plug for Universal Studios. In the middle of the ride, he turns to the camera and, holding up a pair of theme-park tickets, says, “Ka-ching!”

Other plugs were there—just not tied to specific brands. Hand sanitizer, PDAs, handheld videogames—all highlighted in the film’s day-glow colors. When Myers pulls out his credit-card machine, it doesn’t take much for viewers to tie it back to the MasterCard spot they watched before the movie.

Even though the marketing partners couldn’t shill their products in the film, they’ll still get healthy returns on their investments. The sheer energy of the Cat brand is too much for parents to resist. They’ll take their kids to the movie, and when the kids are in the grocery store, they’ll reach for the cereal box with the Cat on it.

Yes, the reviews are bad. The film is appalling. But this is a modern movie-marketing juggernaut. It may not charm or entertain you, but it can easily beat you into submission.

For the Record: In the 25th anniversary issue [Nov. 17], the Lee Clow profile should have noted that Brent Thomas, not Brent Bouchez, was the art director on Chiat/Day’s “1984” spot for Apple. Also, Clow’s wife is Ilene, not Eileen. In a story on the VCU Adcenter roast for Joe Pytka [Nov. 10], the photo on the dais during the ceremony was misidentified. It was of the late Mike Koelker, who was an executive creative director at Foote Cone & Belding in San Francisco.