Mike Myers, Alec Baldwin On How They Skinned Seuss’ ‘Cat’

Cast, producer tell how they turned tiny book into feature film.

UNIVERSAL CITY, California — “The Cat in the Hat” has been almost universally dismissed by critics, including one who called it “kitty litter” and another who declared that Hollywood had turned the Dr. Seuss classic into “a vulgar, uninspired lump of poisoned eye candy.”

But despite the savage neutering in the press, the “Cat” cleaned up at the box office this weekend, opening to the tune of more than $40 million (see “Good Kitty: ‘Cat In The Hat’ Scratches Out Box-Office Win” ). So what went wrong (or right, depending on who you ask)?

Any author from John Grisham to Stephen King will tell you that movies made from books aren’t always up to par with their source material. And in this case, the filmmakers had very little source material to work with. How exactly do you turn less than 20 pages of drawings and quirky rhymes into a feature-length movie?

“When a book has a great idea, which is ‘It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how,’ it doesn’t matter how long the book is,” Myers reasoned recently, sitting in an empty studio on the Universal lot. “What you’re looking for when you take a book and make it into a movie is that it has a good foundation.”

Kelly Preston, who plays the mother of the two children the Cat visits, admittedly found the book particularly lacking when it came to researching her character. “In the book, Mom is a foot,” she said, laughing.

Producer Brian Grazer (“8 Mile”), who had prior “Seuss” experience with Jim Carrey’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” was concerned about the brevity of the material but was confident they could pull it off successfully. “There are only 1,600 words in ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ ” he said, “so you have to almost treat it like a really good poem and you have to prognosticate as to what each of those words implies in order to turn it into a two-hour movie, theoretically.

“Having produced ‘The Grinch,’ I know that was widely accepted and that Audrey Geisel, Seuss’ widow, loved it, so it makes me feel a little more confident,” he added. “But I guess the real confidence comes with Mike Myers. He, as an artist, seamlessly inhabited the Cat, and his irreverence supercharges this classic Cat into a full-blown movie.”

“Cat” villain Alec Baldwin said Myers’ improvisational humor provided more than enough jokes for a feature-length film. “We would try a lot of different things, and hopefully the DVD will have the gross-out humor equivalent of an NC-17 track, because we did a lot of nutty things that didn’t make it into the film.”

“You try to work out everything before you go in there, but then crap happens,” Myers said. “I studied with a guy named Del Close, who was [the late Chris] Farley’s teacher. Del Close was one of the founders of Second City in Chicago and he worked with [John] Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and all those guys. He had a great expression, which is ‘The master weaver take the mistakes of his students and weaves them into the grand design.’ What you can’t fix, you feature. And mistakes are great happy accidents.”

Despite the loose vibe on the set, “The Cat in the Hat” is far from an art film or a movie with low expectations from Universal. The big-budget “Cat” is about as commercial as it gets, with a line of merchandise — from scarves to Pop Tarts — already on shelves.

“I don’t think about any of that kind of stuff,” Myers insisted. “It’s such a twisted, twisted movie. That’s what I tried to focus on. I just wanted to be part of [a movie like] ‘Willy Wonka’ or ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.’ And we actually tip our hat to the sort of marketing of it all, because at one point I turn to the camera — [the little boy] goes, ‘This is like a ride at an amusement park,’ and I go, ‘You mean like at Universal Studios? Cha-ching!’ So to that extent I was aware of it.”

Carrey’s “Grinch” opened at $55.1 million and went on to collect more than $260 million.