I remember reading that Dr. Seuss had written a movie, I jumped at the chance to view it. Of course, that means that I put it to my Netflix DVD queue and wait patiently for it to reach number 1. But, we have finally come to the day that it arrived and I have to say that it’s pretty much exactly what I would have expected from the writer of visually inventive and weird children’s books, but with less rhyming.
It’s a story set in a dream world that follows dream logic. A young boy is sitting at the piano and receiving instruction from the overbearing Dr. Terwilliger with his mother offering nothing but support to the lesson. There’s also a plumber in the house for reasons. After Dr. Terwilliger leaves in a huff, the boy falls asleep and enters his dream that looks a whole lot like a Dr. Seuss book brought to life.
The visual design of the film is really the star. It really does look like the sort of thing that would populate a book by the Dr. Seuss himself. It’s a great use of huge sets, including the central giant piano, matte paintings, composites, and costumes that sells the unreality of the world. As we watch little Bartholomew escape his captors and run around the world, he’s running in and around a wonderful variety of sights from tall, looming towers to a door that has an articulated set of hands for no apparent reason. It’s somewhere between a wonderland and a nightmare, much like I would expect a Dr. Seuss book come to life would feel like.
The problems really arise with the story. It’s made up of little pieces that feel like world building expansions rather than story beats. It’s also a musical (that had most of its musical numbers cut because of bad test screenings) and carries a lot of the baggage of a musical. I like the songs a good bit, but the numbers range from productive, like when Bart gets the plumber to Dr. T and Dr. T convinces him, though song and dance, that he’s a good guy, to pointless, like the dungeon sequence of prisoners (none who play the piano) doing a long number. That dungeon number is quite fun, but Bart just squeezes past without ever engaging and we never see the prisoners again. It reminded me a lot of the “Portobello Road” number from Bedknobs and Broomsticks in that it was the best number of the film but also the most pointless.
The story itself is Bart trying to escape the clutches of Dr. T who’s maniacally opening a new center for music (only pianos) and is focusing his attention on the giant piano on which will play 500 boys (hence, the 5,000 fingers). Bart escapes and runs around, meeting the plumber who will be liquidated once he finishes installing the final sink to get the building up to the county code, and they plan on rescuing Bart’s mother who is Dr. T’s assistant and under his hypnotic spell. That quest involves a lot of running around from Dr. T’s henchmen and not a whole lot else. There are two henchmen, a pair of twins connected by their long beard, that are interesting to watch, at least.
I would be curious to see the pre-test screening version of the film. I’m not sure it would make it better, but it would certainly make it more cohesive from a purely technical point of view. There are very obvious cuts where songs were, and considering the fact that I do like the songs that are there, at least there could have been more songs to enjoy, whether useful or not. One of the side effects of the cuts, though, seems to have been the thinning out of characters, in particular Bart’s mother. Her big number is obviously one that was cut, and she ends up feeling very waifishly thin as a result.
It was an interesting little film that reached for the stars in terms of visual fancy but its cuts and possibly basic construction beforehand (hard to tell without seeing the original version) made it a more disjointed experience than it needed to be. Still, I’m not disappointed that I watched it.