Friday, June 27, 2014
The illuminating meeting of Drs Seuss and Freud
The plot is simple, when you get down to basics. Bart Collins is a boy prone to fantasizing. In order to teach him discipline, his mother has signed him up for piano lessons with Dr. Terwiliger, a perfectionist who demands extensive hours of practice. (All children raised by tiger mothers are playing the world's smallest violin, and playing it more beautifully than you ever could.) He's more drawn to the kindly, commonsensical plumber, Mr. Zabladowski.
So he falls into another dream, one where he's kept prisoner in Dr. T's sprawling surreal academy. His mother is under hypnosis, forced to do Dr. T's bidding. Seuss and director Roy Rowland don't get too gross with it, but Dr. T does intend to marry pretty mommy, and she doesn't object to him locking her in a gilded cage. Zabladowski is in the dream too, installing sinks so the school can open on time. Bart wins the wary plumber to his side, becoming blood brothers with him and in nearly the same breath exacting a promise to become his new father. Together they set out to bring down Dr. T and his evil musical schemes.
What this movie gets right about dreams is that they're not a reflection of reality. They're a reflection of us, and elements of reality make a cameo here and there. In what we see of Dr. Terwiliger (played by Hans Conried, probably best known as the voice of Captain Hook in Peter Pan) in real life, he shows no sign of being anything more sinister than a humor-challenged martinet teacher. Since that's bad enough for boy like Bart, in dreams he becomes a Flash Gordon villain. Similarly his mother Heloise shows no attraction to this somewhat asexual piano geek in the real life scenes. The battle of good father vs. bad father is going on only in the boy's head.
But that's the thing. Children learn quickly that life isn't fair. They're slower to find out that they themselves aren't fair. But that unfairness is buried deep in the subconscious, of grownups too. In certain doses it can be therapeutic.