MOVIE REVIEW - Horton Hears a Who!
Horton Hears a Who!
Directors: Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino
Writers: Screenplay by Ken Daurio & Cinco Paul, based on the book by Dr. Seuss
Producer: Bob Gordon
Featuring the vocal talents of: Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, Seth Rogen, Dan Fogler, Isla Fisher, Jonah Hill, Amy Poehler, Jaime Pressly, Charles Osgood
Galileo was forced by the Catholic Church to recant his finding that the Earth was not the center of the Universe. The legend goes that, after this, he muttered under his breath “And yet it moves”. There was no Horton around to hear him with giant elephant ears, though, so who knows if it ever actually happened?
Both science and religion eventually depend on our belief in things not everyone can see, hear, touch, or understand, even as they seek to explain things that can affect all of us. Dr. Seuss’s classic children’s book Horton Hears a Who! always alluded to these truisms without resorting to one-sided allegory, it was about belief itself.
“I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, 100-percent!” So goes the famous line of Horton the pachyderm hero. I remember reading that line as a little boy. To call this adaptation by the hundreds of artists at Fox-based Blue Sky Digital (creators of the Ice Age movies) a “companion piece” to a book entirely written and illustrated by one imaginative man is an outrage against the ratio of involved labor; but it is, in essence, accurate, and a compliment from someone with fond memories of that book.
It is in many respects as bright, cheerful, and gentle as the Dr. Seuss artwork its artists have so lovingly rendered in digital animation, and it does what the best family entertainment does. It acknowledges in its design the thorny complexities of adulthood, the fears and worries and mistakes, and does not encourage children to ignore or deny them, but to surmount them by remembering what is simple, and true, and good. They get their laughs and delights, while adults should admire the loopy visuals and the personality of its voice cast.
It’s a wonder it took the movie business this long to figure out how to approach Dr. Seuss. The psychic scars from manic carnivals like Ron Howard’s live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas are deep indeed; the filmmakers seemed to think their job was not to entertain children, but to terrify them like the bellowing Santa Claus that kicked Ralphie in the face in A Christmas Story.
That movie starred Jim Carrey covered in yak hair and glue, which is not something anyone really needed to see. He is involved in this piece too, invisible, as the voice of Horton. It’s rather shocking that, given what easy money it is for movie stars these days, he hasn’t voiced an animated character before – it suits his playful agility. This elephant is child-like, curious, distractible, fantasy-prone, but good-hearted and true to his principles. None of his friends in the jungle of Nool are really surprised when he starts claiming that the speck of dust on top of a flower he found actually contains a microscopic civilization. But as the children of the jungle are inspired to seek their own imaginary civilizations, undermining the authority of the imperious Kangaroo (Carol Burnett), her schemes and inquisitions against Horton and his speck become as violent and urgent as that of the Church against Galileo.
We get to see that what he heard is absolutely right; within that speck is the zany Whoville, populated by those bouncy imps, the Whos. They are dedicated to recreation and shun all worry, and while Horton takes on the mission to transport their speck past many hazards and enemies to a safe spot atop Mt. Nool, the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carrell) naturally has a hard time convincing the populace that their whole world is threatened with doom, because it is being carried around by a giant invisible elephant that speaks only to him.
There are some unnecessary tangents – like an extended sequence parodying imported martial arts cartoons, and a destined-for-anachronism gag referencing the Fox-owned website MySpace – but for the most part the filmmakers satisfy themselves with providing a bright, silly adventure along the lines of the book. Many of Seuss’s graceful curvy lines and whimsical Whoville contraptions are intact and expanded upon, and Whoville’s constantly-celebrating society is given a few deserved tweaks – the Mayor points out that putting the word “Who” in front of dental work does not make it fun.
And in spite of my perennial hobby horse about shunning voice professionals in favor of movie stars, Carrey and Carrell are each able to do fine, evocative work. I like the edge of uncertainty in Carrell’s voice as he tries to process the vulnerability of being a speck on a speck, and I like Isla Fisher’s lisping exuberance as Who scientist Dr. Mary Lou Larue. Arrested Development’s Will Arnett brings Gob-like misplaced confidence and a goofy faux-Russian accent to the role of a vulture whose aspirations to villainy outstrip his competence. And there’s even a strike of counter-intuitive gold, with Seth Rogen voicing Horton’s zippy blue mouse friend Morton. He doesn’t pretend to sound like anyone but Seth Rogen, yet married to the character’s worried visual design there’s a perfect incongruity to it that made me smile.
Ken Duario and Cinco Paul are the screenwriters who adapted this book, and they are to be commended for resisting the urge to work too hard. They neither pander to the children, nor delude themselves into thinking that kids are media-savvy attention-deficit cynics who need loud antics and pop culture gags every three seconds. They, and the rest of the filmmakers, succeed by creating a visually-delightful world, populating it with cute and zestful characters, and sticking to the mission. This is an utterly charming picture, and faithful to its source; maybe not 100-percent, but closer than you’d expect.