Martin Short revives Cat in the Hat for PBS series

Thu Sep 2, 2010 11:52pm EDT
 
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By Barry Garron

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - More than a half-century ago, the Cat in the Hat was on a mission.

Challenged to create a figure that would make children more interested in reading, Dr. Seuss came up with an engaging feline with a red- and white-striped top hat. With his anarchic style and penchant for adventure, the Cat in the Hat led several generations of youngsters to appreciate the written word.

Now the ever-smiling creature has been reprogrammed to interest young children in science. But is it possible to teach an old cat new tricks? With PBS' new toon series "The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That," the answer is yes, and for pretty much the same reason the rhyming Cat has been a hit with fledgling readers since 1957. He diverts young minds with wild adventures and makes learning almost incidental. By incorporating scientific concepts into wacky stories, young children become more aware of the world around them almost effortlessly.

For this to really work, the Cat has to sound like the free spirit he is intended to be. Credit in this regard goes to Martin Short, reportedly the first choice of Audrey Geisel, widow of Dr. Seuss. Short makes the character merry and mischievous without going over the top.

Each half-hour episode consists of two 15-minute segments in which the Cat in the Hat takes neighbors Nick (Jacob Ewaniuk) and Sally (Alexa Torrington) flying in the Thingamajigger to solve a mystery of science. (In deference to modern parental caution, the kids always ask one of their mothers if it is OK to go with the Cat. The out-of-sight mom, thinking it's all a figment of their imagination, gives her blessing.)

In the first segment, Nick and Sally learn how bees make honey. They get the scoop straight from dancing bees and their leader, Queen Priscilla Buzzoo. In Segment 2, the kids discover that the purple martin that inhabited the backyard birdhouse has disappeared. While tracking him down, they learn about bird migration. Through interstitial bits, they also learn that the feature that distinguishes birds from all other creatures is the presence of feathers.

Through all this, the Cat (and the Fish and Thing 1 and Thing 2) serve more as guides than instructors. They don't delve into things too deeply, just far enough to spark some curiosity. All the while, they repeatedly and implicitly send the message that all of the world's mysteries have explanations just waiting to be discovered. That should please both advocates of early childhood education as well as Cat fanciers. More importantly -- despite old-school 2D animation of characters and backgrounds that hews closely to the books -- the series should keep and hold the attention of kids in an era when shows often barrage them with color and sound.