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This review was originally published March 21, 2008.
The work of Dr. Seuss has not had an easy life on the silver screen. Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas should top any conscious filmgoer’s list of worst Christmas films and the even more despicable The Cat in the Hat surely caused more than one heart attack at the Seuss estate. It is with these two films in mind that I walked into Blue Sky Animation’s production of Horton Hears a Who with trepidation. Would Hollywood again ravage the work of my favorite childhood author and leave it bleeding on the side of the road?
Horton Hears a Who is the story of Horton the elephant (voiced by Jim Carrey), a jovial and slightly dimwitted elephant living in the jungle of Nool. During the heat of the day, while bathing in the cool of pool, Horton hears something very small whiz by him and goes on a search to find out what it is. After earnestly looking he finds a small speck of dust. To Horton’s surprise, this is no ordinary particle, but the home to hundreds of Whos living in the town of Whoville. After talking to the eccentric mayor of Whoville, Horton takes it upon himself to protect this speck from its oppressors at whatever the cost and guide it to the safety of Mount Nool because “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”
Of course, the original Seuss book could never make a 90-minute film. Changes and additions are absolutely necessary and Blue Sky has done a fairly good job with them. Carol Burnett voices the kangaroo who abhors the idea of Horton taking care of a speck. She goes out of her way to try to destroy the speck (“For the sake of the children!”), even hiring a frightening bird-of-prey named Vlad (Will Arnett sounding scarily similar to Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises) to pursue it. These dimensions add extra tension to the jungle side of the story, but Whoville is fleshed out much more as well. Steve Carell voices the eccentric and dedicated mayor of Whoville who feels something has gone quite awry in his peaceful hamlet when Horton’s voice starts booming from the sky. By the end of the film it is his job to convince Whoville that Horton is real and that there is a whole world existing beyond their tiny speck.
The ideas behind these changes work well, but as they say, the devil is in the details. Animated films begin to falter when they pander to the obvious or expected joke. There are a few moments when the film gets completely distracted from the main story and indulges in moments of unnecessary stupidity. A prime example: when Horton decides that he is going to brave whatever is necessary in order to bring the speck to the shelter of Mt. Nool, the film blasts into a supercharged anime sequence so loud and overpowering that the intended audience reaction is nearly impossible. Where Seuss’ work has a timeless quality, these few attempts to be “hip” will alienate audiences ten years from now.
Aside from these things, the beauty of Seuss’ artistry is completely intact. To write off this adaptation because of a few bad additions would be to miss the beauty on display. The swooping and diving shots so obligatory to animated storytelling are put to good use here as the speck floats around the jungle of Nool and finds its home in different places before coming to Horton. The production design and the way characters look is distinctively “Seussian” and never seems distracting while the immediate story is being told. The narrative is presented in such brilliant color that it is hard to be distracted even when some moments become less than compelling.
There is a moment in Horton Hears a Who when the faithful pachyderm passively mentions the “inalienable rights” of the Whos on the speck. The phrase slips by in a flash and could be easy to miss, but it reveals the core of Dr. Seuss’ story. Filled with tasteful hyperbole and metaphors, it makes a hearkening statement about the right of all people to exist, no matter how small they may be; an important message for a culture where the idea of small people actually being people is under fire. It is said that Seuss didn’t like pro-life advocates projecting their message onto his work and it’s certainly understandable given that such a message may have not been his intent. Still, the film teaches respect for people of all sizes and instills a sense of wonder at the things beyond ourselves. In a slimy pool of animated dreck, Horton Hears a Who rises above and will delight and teach both kids and adults with its humor and message.