Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who!

Mar 19, 2008 at 12:00 am

OK, let's get the ugly stuff out of the way first: Slo-mo Matrix parodies are not funny. Pop culture references to Apocalypse Now, breakdancing and Japanese kung fu manga are not funny. Ending a kid's movie with cartoon characters breaking into REO Speedwagon songs is not funny. And, finally, having a sassy "black" secretary not only isn't funny, it's a tired, racist stereotype — especially when all the Whos are white.

Bitching aside, Horton could've been much worse. In fact, Blue Sky's (Ice Age, Robots) computer-animated take on the Dr. Seuss classic is a colorful, mostly entertaining kiddie flick whose message is respect.

Originally inspired by America's occupation of Japan, Horton Hears a Who! by Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) is the tale of a gentle elephant who stands up against the tyranny of the mob to defend a tiny world of unseen Whos. Its take-away message — "A person's a person, no matter how small!" — expressed one of the author's numerous progressive sentiments (environmentalism, racial tolerance, peace), which, unfortunately, found its way into the literature of anti-abortion groups. Geisel's widow was so disturbed by those groups' appropriation and misinterpretation of her husband's work that she threatened legal action. Still, at the movie's premiere, stars and tots alike were greeted by demonstrating right-to-lifers. Who'd have guessed that the Whos would become so politically charged?

When you consider Ron Howard's moronically soulless The Grinch Who Stole Christmas or Mike Myer's hideously vulgar The Cat in the Hat (Geisel's widow, in fact, banned all further live-action adaptations after seeing it), it's understandable that audiences would approach yet another Seuss adaptation with dread, particularly if it stars Jim Carrey.

Luckily, screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul pad Horton with a cleverly expanded narrative that introduces some evocative ideas without undermining the charm and creativity of the original story. Similarly, directors Jimmy Haywood and Steve Martino have muzzled Carrey's over-the-top mugging and effectively capitalized on his goofball sense of innocence. Smartly teaming him with Steve Carell, as the ridiculed mayor of Whoville, the filmmakers deliver a flick that's both respectful and respectable. In other words, but for a few comic missteps (enumerated above), the heart of Geisel's brave little tale remains intact.

The animation is stunning. Whoville bursts with candy-colored invention and design, while the CG characters brilliantly capture Seuss' empathetic nuttiness. Whether it's Horton's exaggerated jungle landscape or the crazy contraptions hidden away in Whoville's abandoned observatory, the film is richly detailed and manically populated with visual delights. In many ways, Seuss' whimsical material is the perfect fit for today's computer animation.

The voice work is equally vivid, with Carrey and Carell finding the humor and heart in their characters. Seth Rogan and Will Arnett earn big yucks in supporting roles, while the incidental characters are all handled by pros with vibrancy and wit. Astonishingly, only Carol Burnett's tyrannically disapproving kangaroo mom fails to impress. It's a disappointingly indistinct take on what should have been a wickedly villainous role.

Nevertheless, Horton Hears a Who! seems to have learned from the failures of recent adaptations and embraced Geisel's underlying theme of compassion and respect. It's a message he continually revisits in his books. As this delightful film demonstrates, it's well worth repeating.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].