Credit: Universal Studios/Dreamworks

Family Canon: The (proletari)cat in the hat

By Lucy Fitzgerald

The first entry in our Family Canon series, covering the films and TV shows we watched over and over as children.

The Cat in the Hat, the live-action adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s book, reigns supreme in my family canon. Mike Myers’ chef-d’oeuvres operates on its own plane of existence – one of simultaneous intellect and insanity. Disclaimer: this article may offend the haughty, Tarantino-bitched bros of film Twitter. I can understand why people may hate this film but I will defend its auteurist merit until my dying breath and yes, I am calling it a FILM! I attest that Seuss could Sorkin, but Sorkin could never Seuss; that Myers could Malick, but Malick could never Myers. I digress…

Bi-annually, I arrange for my whole family to revisit the irreverent comedy. Not only do my parents and older brothers not object, but they also welcome it. With the Seinfeld alumni screenwriters providing a rich blend of dark humour and colourful adventure, The Cat in The Hat appeals to adult and child audiences alike because the script does not condescend either demographic. I believe it to be a tale of children’s empowerment, and it is for this reason it holds a special place in my family’s hearts. Hot take: it achieves this through its playful but didactic anti-capitalist cautionary message.

In my younger and more vulnerable years, I felt a strong affinity with Sally Walden, the exceedingly precocious little sister. Rather than a beautiful little fool, she is a thoroughly ambitious goody two shoes. She attends to her to-do lists with militaristic efficiency and severs female friendships over mere baking mishaps so I guess she is a #GIRLBOSS…? She is so far up her mother’s arse, ruthlessly snitching on her big brother Conrad’s proclivity for parental defiance, to the extent that he is left in a state of perpetual resentment towards both Sally and his mother. 

Roald Dahl, a contemporary of Seuss’ as a children’s author with iconic illustrations, operated in binaries when it came to family dynamics. He famously demonised his parent characters and emancipated the children. The Cat in the Hat movie goes further by tenderly bridging this generational gap while offering nuance in the kids’ development. Indeed, initially, Sally and Conrad are opposites, the obedient and the disobedient, with polarising relationships with their mother, until The Cat shakes things up and leaves the Waldens with a sense of understanding and balance. 

The town is every inch the suburban American utopia, a Norman Rockwell wet dream.

It shines with a clinical gleam but it needs to get a bit dirty. The Cat is the architect of anarchy, an agent of chaos. The method to his madness is that he empowers the sibling duo to work together and resolve their problems without adult influence. During The Cat’s stay, mum Joan is absent and the conservative voice of convention, The Fish, is silenced. One could ascribe Sally and Conrad’s initial personalities as child versions of the adult ones a capitalist system spits out: the meticulous perfectionist will turn into the neurotic workaholic who inevitably burns out and the “man-child”, lazy and careless, cannot survive in the machine of the system.

The Cat’s ultimate objective is to teach the kids to have “FUN, FUN, FUN!” and have faith in one another. Instead of leading a repressed, fruitless life, where you only serve the Man (giving in to a capitalist system), The Cat gets Sally to loosen up, and Conrad learns to trust his sister, making them more well-rounded and autonomous individuals. Indulging in silliness proves to be a great tool in the end, boosting productivity (this challenges the neo-liberalist construct of professionalism). When The Cat piercingly reality-checks Sally: “Hey kid, you’re a lone wolf. Live alone, DIE ALONE!” I thought it to be a loaded sentiment — is he teaching her of the resilience necessary to survive in a ruthlessly individualistic, neo-liberal world, and championing conformity to such magnate misery? Or is he simply alluding to the solitary existence experienced by Simon and Garfunkel, evident in their 1966 hit I Am a Rock: I am a rock / I am an island. I believe it is the latter. Ugh, we love a renaissance man, er, cat.

The M.O. of Thing 1 and Thing 2, The Cat’s hyper-active sidekicks from Dr Seuss’ broader “Who” universe, is to do the exact opposite of what they are told. These gymnast twins function as another force for Sally and Conrad to think differently, to reframe their mindset from that which they are programmed. The Things were truly ahead of their time, personifying the internet’s (questionable) favourite term of endearment, “crackhead energy”, and preceding fellow erratic subordinates the Minions of Despicable Me

The antagonist, Larry, played deliciously by Alec Baldwin, acts as a suitor to Joan and a looming authority figure for Conrad, dangling the prospect of military school over him. Larry’s ostensibly respectable and presentable potential step-father image is a facade. He cosplays as a functioning member of society, power stance-ing on the front lawn in his pinstripe suit next to a convertible in an attempt to flex on Joan. The next frame sees Larry slyly sneak back into his home, peel off his waist trainer to reveal a hairy rotund belly, the button of which he fingers grotesquely. With a squalorly home interior and an assumed credit score of 300, the theme of appearances versus reality is invoked – one that is ubiquitous in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Macbeth – these Seinfeld dudes are no schmucks! Who would have thought this 9% Rotten Tomato-rated movie is actually a penetrating meditation on America’s class system and the reality of those living on the breadline? Once the children discover Larry’s Jekyll and Hyde deception, their detection-for-bullshit senses are heightened. Joan and her children collectively usher him out of the house; a defiant rejection of the need for a father figure in the Walden household. The film implores us to discard the patriarchal systems in our lives that oppress us, as these ultimately exist in a symbiotic relationship with capitalism. The Cat has instilled in the children the power to think critically for themselves. Also, Baldwin’s real-life aggressive nature definitely informs my view of the character now (he infamously fired savage insults at his 11-year-old child. We have no choice but to stan this method acting).

Like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, this iteration of Seuss’ tale could be categorised as social horror. Please indulge my rapid-fire political allegiance game: Larry is definitely a Trump supporter. I fear Joan might have sponsored the Catholic Moms for Kavanaugh campaign, but she ultimately evolves into a Biden babe. The Cat — Bernie for sure. By the end of the movie, Sally and Conrad are young communists ready to tear down the two-party system.

On a serious level, The Cat in the Hat is not entirely above criticism. Viewing it now through a more critical lens, it treads difficult waters in terms of political correctness. Moments of racial and cultural insensitivity occur: The Cat appears dressed up as a Latin American woman in an ornate headdress while gyrating with castanets. He briefly adopts a Blaccent when retorting Sally’s “Cat you ruined mom’s dress!” “HONEY… [sassy finger snap] IT WAS RUINED WHEN SHE BOUGHT IT!” Finally, in the “I have a problem with the word dog” scene (that I can now recite verbatim) The Cat transforms into a hippie animal rights advocate, complete with a crusty bohemian get up and distinctly White American stoner voice. I did not fully understand this monologues joking racial allegory until a few years ago.

In terms of the film informing my own personality and that of my siblings, its frantic and unfiltered nature reminds us not to take things too seriously and to embrace a little frenzy sometimes. It speaks to that unhinged demon that lives somewhere inside all of us. The film takes our suspension of disbelief and subverts it 10 times over until everything is utterly deranged. From The Cat producing cupcakes that have fire extinguishers as ingredients and randomly speaking in a regional northern English accent, to sexual innuendo and shades of morbidity constantly intersecting with the light juvenile humour. Examples include The Cat’s emotionally chaotic relationship with a garden rake: “DIRTY HOE! … I’m sorry baby I love you” and the scene where, after learning of Mrs Kwan’s profession as a babysitter, The Cat cries: “YOU PAY THIS WOMAN TO SIT ON BABIES? I’d do it for free!” Finally, Myers makes clear it is simply never too early to learn of your own mortality, even at eight years old: “There is a third option but it involves … MURDER!”

The movie operates with acute self-awareness and offers kitsch connections to the real world, including when The Cat breaks the fourth wall to give a commercial plug for Universal Studios, parodying the product placement ubiquitous in Hollywood movies. Also, The Cat’s momentary escape to a wild speakeasy, complete with a cameo from 2000s it girl Paris Hilton. And I cannot forget the iconic scene where the usually-disassociating Mrs Kwan delivers a total singularity of vision in her exclamation: “NO MORE BIG GOVERNMENT!” as she and the kids watch Taiwanese politicians wrestle on the TV. Absolute scenes. Earlier this year Twitter didn’t miss a beat noting Joan’s boss Mr Humberfloob’s ahead-of-his-time aggressive hand sanitising routine, foreshadowing the universal upgrade in hygiene that the Covid pandemic has demanded of us all. 

I firmly believe a key factor in the film’s cultural endurance is its perfect translation and transition into the age of the meme (the same can be said for the zeitgeist captivation of Shrek). Since 2003, my sense of humour has matured with more life experience but has also been totally infantilised again by the meta irony of memes. Internet humour is just so damn nuanced. I implore you to have a little browse for some Cat content, it’s disturbing! The Cat in the Hat, with its sporadic cuts to random images (HANG IN THERE BABY!) and non-sequiturs, has all the properties and spirit of a meme. Endlessly quotable, the mighty memes are a transcendent device in gen-Z and millennial communication. 

In sum, this fever dream of feline fun, in all its loud Lynchian glory, liberates children. By the time The Cat leaves the kids are an enlightened and empowered proletariat. 


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