Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who (2008)


Director – Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino
Writers – Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio
Based on the book by Dr. Seuss
Music – John Powell
Producer – Bob Gordon
20th Century Fox. 1 hour 28 minutes. Rated G.
STARRING THE VOICES OF: Jim Carrey (Horton), Steve Carell (Mayor), Carol Burnett (Kangaroo), Will Arnett (Vlad), Isla Fisher (Dr. Mary Lou LaRue), Amy Poehler (Sally O’Malley), Seth Rogen (Morton), Jonah Hill (Tommy) and Dan Fogler (Councilman)

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

When will filmmakers learn that the magic of Dr. Seuss’s whimsical, wonderful tales has as much to do with brevity as anything else?

Let me put it another way: “A good story’s a good story, no matter how small.

Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who is the latest of Seuss’s tales to be pumped up to elephantine proportions. And due to the disastrous Seuss adaptations that have preceded it, I’m sure it will earn a great deal of praise (as if all we ask of our movies is “Please don’t suck!”) And it will also earn points for clearly affirming all kinds of admirable themes (as if good messages are what make good movies).

Horton earns a few chuckles, has some surprising absurdist flourishes, and packs many good ideas under its expansive belt. But we’re living in a time when it’s easy to find examples of timeless, brilliant entertainment for all ages. We have Pixar and Hayao Miyazaki to thank, primarily, for a whole library of films that are both breathtaking and profound, speaking to parents as much as adults.

Thus, it’s all the more frustrating when flabby, overstuffed films like Horton come stomping into town. Theodore Geisel’s 60-page storybook had everything it needed to transcend its original context of McCarthyism and paranoia to speak to any era about respect, stewardship, and compassion. But directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino seem worried that the story won’t hold the attention of their viewers. Thus, they toss in plenty of pop-culture references that seem entirely out of place here (Kennedy quotes? References to Apocalypse Now and MySpace?) And they pack these 88-minutes with broad-stroke comedy that isn’t very funny; frequent chase scenes that aren’t terribly creative; and myriad unnecessary supporting characters that crowd the story and seem to exist so another celebrity’s name can be stamped on the poster.

What gives? Were screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio worried that the movie would fall short of feature-length? If so that’s too bad. It’s worth noting that the only lasting, beloved Dr. Seuss screen adaptation is the Chuck Jones version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Horton made his debut in a Seuss story 14 years before he heard a Who. But in this ambitious tale, the elephant’s enormous ears enable him to hear voices on a speck of dust. He comes to understand that there is a whole society on that speck, and makes contact with the Mayor of Whoville. Thus, Horton learns to care about the little things, promising that “An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent!” and “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” (That line, much to Seuss’ dismay, was co-opted by Pro-Life campaigners as a slogan. Probably because we all know that kids love stories even better when their parents narrow their interpretation to one politically advantageous purpose.)

Meanwhile, the Mayor of Whoville takes on the role of being a prophet to his own people, testifying to the fact that their world is in danger, and only this Voice From the Sky–this unseen, enormous, powerful, and benevolent pachyderm, is looking down on them all.

These filmmakers, like the makers of 2008′s other animated disappointment, The Tale of Despereaux, have buried a tasty cupcake under several pounds of frosting. And, like little Despereaux, this beloved elephant has been given an extreme makeover. Humble, sweet Horton has been kidnapped and replaced by a flamboyant, pratfalling buffoon so frantic to hold our attention that it’s a relief when the movie zooms in on Whoville (where the Mayor himself is a flibbertigibbet).

It’s a disappointment from Blue Sky — the studio that brought us the entertaining Ice Age, which was so much better than anyone had really expected.

And it’s a shame, too, because they’re the first studio to deliver a feature-length Seussian film that looks like Seuss’s world and feels like his personality. The style, at least, is right. The Whos of Whoville move like the overcooked spaghetti noodles they resemble. And the filmmakers have clearly gone to great lengths to pay tribute to Seuss’s body of work: Watch carefully, and you’ll catch tidbits from other books like One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

The cast is a fine ensemble of voice talent. Jim Carrey, whose amazing performance was the only admirable thing in Ron Howard’s abominable take on The Grinch, now takes on the hefty role of Horton, a pachyderm prone to preposterous adventures. With Loony Toon intensity, he takes the simple, likable Horton and turns him into, well, Jim Carrey, investing the elephant with an excess of adrenalin and expression.

Steve Carell is better-suited to his role as the exasperated Mayor of Whoville.

Carol Burnett plays the first of several threats to Horton’s quest. She’s Sour Kangaroo (Carol Burnett), the overly-concerned citizen and overprotective mother who wants to shield her children from the alarming notion that there might be more to this world than meets the eye. (She should have been voiced by Richard Dawkins.) She even enlists an army of sinister monkeys to try and silence Horton’s ideas. She doesn’t want her kids thinking that we might need to pay attention to small things, and that there might be value in preserving the world’s most intricate details. As an enemy of imagination and conscience, she comes to represent any moralistic blowhard who wants to squash new ideas rather than test and investigate them.

But even this hysterical Kangaroo cannot expand the story enough to fill 88 minutes, so the Mayor’s city council are also given enlarged roles to play as a panel of nay-sayers who try to silence the Mayor’s urgent warnings. They’d much rather go on celebrating without any attention to the apocalyptic signs happening all around them.

And what’s this? Another villain? The kangaroo, the monkeys, and the panel aren’t enough, apparently. Vlad, a pesky vulture (and the third animated villain in the last two years to strike Nosferatu poses), serves as the Big Somewhat Scary villain, since the Kangaroo is, let’s face it, more annoying than alarming.

A surprising character almost steals the show: The gloomy, misunderstood son of Whoville’s Mayor becomes the soul of the movie merely by being quiet. In the midst of so much hyperactivity, his stillness becomes intriguing. But when the revelations about his character come, they come in the midst of the film’s riotous, prolonged, exhausting finale, and what might have been a touching resolution ends up just another firework in a Fourth of July display.

It’s easy to point out all of the story’s admirable implications. Horton acknowledges the hard work of being a believer in a world that mocks faith; the virtue of faithfulness and service to those in need; the value of even the smallest and most vulnerable lives; and the importance of being responsible stewards of the natural world. These are all very honorable. Bravo.

And it’s easy to praise Blue Sky’s impressive visual art, which shows that they’re among the frontrunners of today’s animation studios.

But as an animation enthusiast, a fan of Dr. Seuss, and a seeker of meaningful family entertainment, I’ve come to believe that good messages, quotable platitudes, and flashy animation are not enough for great moviemaking. Horton heard me yawn at the 40-minute point, increasingly bored. No amount of clowning and action can replace thoughtful storytelling, and by the time the movie had dragged me exhausted to its absurd finale, an elaborate performance of REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” (Why?!), I couldn’t fight my own feeling of exasperation with the film. I wanted to go hang out with Winnie the Pooh or Totoro or Nemo for a while.

As a resource for babysitters, you could do a lot worse than Horton Hears a Who. But in the year when WALL-E reminded us of how funny, creative, and even beautiful an animated feature can be, Horton comes in a distant third (behind Dreamworks’ remarkably clever Kung Fu Panda).

In retrospect, Chuck Jones remains the only one who’s delivered an utterly satisfying adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s whimsy. Hopefully, like the Grinch himself, Hollywood will stop stealing and spoiling Seuss’s inventions, grow a bigger heart, and consider bringing these tales to a smaller screen, in smaller formats, without all of the unnecessary excess. Or how about this: Remember when Disney sewed together several short Winnie the Pooh stories into The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh? That worked just fine, without overstuffing the stories.

And isn’t that one of the lessons that the Whos have to teach us? In the smallest things come the most tremendous possibilities.

The Lorax had better beware.

One Response to “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who (2008)”

  1. Joshua S Says:

    I loved the movie (and the musical number at the end) but had to wonder about the revisionist digs made by the screenwriters at their targat audience….particularly the one shot made by Carol Burnett’s character about homeschoolers…it felt out of place..
    But, the Seussein movie yet.

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