Don't ask Chief Justice Michael Stailey about his moss-covered three-handled family gradunza. It's a sore subject.
Our review of Hats Off to Dr. Seuss (Blu-ray), published March 3rd, 2013, is also available.
"Whoever heard of a six-foot cat?"
The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house All that cold, cold, wet day. I sat there with Sally, we sat there we two. And I said, "How I wish we had something to do!" Too wet to go out and too cold to play ball. So we sat in the house. We did nothing at all. So all we could do was to Sit! Sit! Sit! Sit! And we did not like it. Not one little bit. And then something went BUMP! How that bump made us jump! We looked! Then we saw him step in on the mat! We looked! And we saw him! The Cat in the Hat!
The second in Ted Geisel and Chuck Jones' holy trinity of Dr. Seuss television specials, The Cat in the Hat holds a particularly special place in my heart, as it stars the vocal talents of the late great Allan Sherman, musical comedy's precursor to Weird Al Yankovic. The Chicago native, who achieved great acclaim as a songwriting satirist in the late 1950s and early '60s, was in state of career and health decline when producer Chuck Jones approached him to voice Seuss' iconic anthropomorphic cat for television in 1970. Despite coming off a miserable Broadway failure—The Fig Leaves are Falling, with music by How the Grinch Stole Christmas' songwriter Albert Hague—Sherman gave everything he had to this animated performance. In fact, I'd argue the special would not have succeeded as well as it did without him. But giving credit where credit is due, he had some high profile help in pulling it off.
Director Hawley Pratt began his career as a Warner Bros. animation layout artist in the mid-1940s working alongside Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng in chronicling the adventures and antics of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester and Tweety, and Speedy Gonzales. Though he did not direct How the Grinch Stole Christmas he was responsible for the other great Seussian TV achievement, The Lorax (1972). Of course, none of these would have ever seen the light of day were it not for Ted Geisel and Chuck Jones, whose longstanding friendship led to the many adaptations of Ted's published Dr. Seuss stories. The final piece in this magical puzzle is offbeat composer Dean Elliott, who was the Danny Elfman of his day, pushing the envelope of musical soundscapes and leaving the world with an entire catalog of '60s exotica and lounge music.
But enough with the history lesson…
While many of Geisel's stories were built upon underlying morality tales, The Cat in the Hat is simply a raucous roller coaster rise. Two bored kids are left to fend for themselves on a rainy day, when mom goes to work and leaves them in the care of Karlos K. Krinklebein, their highly intelligent and communicative pet goldfish (who must be part mammal, given the amount of time he spends out of the water); as voiced by Dawes Butler, longtime comic foil for Stan Freberg. Enter a breaking and entering, top hat wearing, bi-polar talking cat, whose Hedonistic view of life is in direct contrast to Krinklebein's self-imposed asceticism. The ensuing battle of wills and resulting fireworks find the kids both enthralled and shocked, as their home is systematically destroyed by the Cat, his otherworldly playmates Thing 2 (Lewis Morford) and Thing 1 (Thurl Ravenscroft), and their penchant for show-stopping musical numbers.
And it's really the music that drives this thirty minute adventure, in much the same way that Andrew Lloyd Webber advances a narrative. "Nothing to Be Done" and "The Gradunza" set the stage. "Calculatus Eliminatus" lights the fuse. "I'm a Punk" and "Beautiful Kittenfish" illustrates the extent to which The Cat employs self-deprecation and subtle manipulation to get what he wants. "Anything Under the Sun" and "Cat, Hat" explode into a sea of sight gags and psychotropic landscapes. And "Sweep Up the Memories" shows us The Cat had no ulterior motives, other than bringing joy into the lives of people (and fish) who were sorely lacking it, and everyone (including Krinklebein) sees the value in it. No harm, no foul.
In way, The Cat in the Hat is not all that different from Jack Rollins' 1950 holiday classic "Frosty the Snowman," which was itself turned into an animated special by Rankin-Bass in 1969. That's not to infer that Geisel based his 1954 story on Rollins song, but the similarities of an magical and musically-inclined character shaking up the status quo for a brief time, before taking his leave with the promise of returning some day are undeniable.
Presented in 1.37:1/1080p high definition full frame, this is the best The Cat in the Hat has ever looked, on par with the restoration efforts Warner Bros. put into How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Colors are vibrant, detail is sharp, and though grain and traditional hand animation slights are evident, it does nothing to distract the eye. The Dolby 1.0 Mono track is a bit of a disappointment, in that the music for this special is so fantastic I would have loved to hear a Disney-esque 5.1 enhanced mix rebuilt from the original masters. But that's just me.
When I saw on the disc case that one of the principal bonus features was a new "Sing-Along" version, I rolled my eyes in contempt. Yes, follow the bouncing cat hat as the song lyrics burn into your retinas, courtesy of obnoxiously fluorescent words in a poorly chosen font. Imagine my surprise when I found something not only completely different from my expectations but brilliantly conceived and executed. Remember how Disney's Blu-ray releases for their early films employed beautiful new artwork to fill the vertical dead space in a full frame aspect ratio? Well, Warner Bros. has gone one step further in utilizing subtle animation to enhance the action on the screen. What's more, the lyrics to the songs utilize the entire frame in a style reminiscent to Dr. Seuss' own published works, font, colors, and all. We we get is a living storybook that juices the film in ways I never imagined. Just a warning to Warner Animation…don't get drunk with success and start using this concept everywhere.
The other two supplements are the 1975 CBS special The Hoober-Bloob Highway, adapting Geisel's wonderfully wacky interpretation of where babies come from, and the orientation they receive before being delivered to their parents. The story works in fits and stages, but often loses focus and drags. The animation once again is done by DePatie-Freleng, but on a lower budgetary scale and it shows. The great Bob Holt (voice of the original Lorax and Once-ler) carries the entire 30 minutes, doing the best he can to liven up the material in a losing battle. The second short is Hanna-Barbera's 1995 adaptation of Daisy-Head Mayzie, a posthumously released tale by Dr. Seuss that centers on a girl who spontaneously grows a flower out the top of her head and the inevitable derision and acclaim that follows. I've never like the story and enjoyed this made-for-HBO short even less, despite the fact that Henry Gibson (The 'Burbs) fronts a star-studded voice cast which includes Tim Curry, Broadway legend George Hearn, and the inimitable Jonathan Winters. The biggest problem with both TV specials is something Judge Erich Asperschlager pointed out in his Blu-ray review of The Lorax. By dumping these bonus shorts onto high definition Blu-ray, it pixelizes the low-fi animation and messes with your brain, making it feel as if your eyes are unable to focus properly. This is lousy Quality Control on the part of the Blu-ray production team and authoring house, or a poor judgment call on the part of Warner Home Video execs. Either way, it's a fail.
The Cat in the Hat (Blu-ray) is a must own for any self-identified Seussian, completing a grand trilogy of TV specials that will transcend space and time as a testament to life and work of several incredible artists.
"Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened."—Dr. Seuss
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