Movie Review: Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! (Toonie Matinee)
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Someday, if we're all good little boys and girls, the world will hand us a Dr. Seuss film half as wonderful as one of the books. Meantime we have the competent, clinical computer animation and relative inoffensiveness of "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" to pass the time. Graced with some rich voice talent led by a sweetly restrained Jim Carrey, the film is far less grating than the big-budget versions of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (big hit) and "The Cat in the Hat" (not), live-action projects both, depending on your definition of "live." If only Theodor Geisel weren't a great American humorist and a true cultural hero! Then we could roll with the mediocrity more easily.
Directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, who worked together on "Robots," the film hews closely to the contours of Seuss' original 60-page storybook, published in 1954, when Red Scare paranoia ruled the land. (Horton the elephant premiered 14 years earlier in "Horton Hatches the Egg!") Your enjoyment of this G-rated enterprise will have everything to do with how much you're willing to overlook: how much story padding, how many references to Henry Kissinger or "Apocalypse Now" or, in a rare nod to our own century, MySpace. Does Seuss need any of this? I think you know the answer already.
To date, with the possible exception of the uniquely unsettling "5,000 Fingers of Dr. T" (1953), only the 1966 Chuck Jones "Grinch" TV special worked a kind of magic comparable to Seuss' own. The '66 "Grinch" ran 26 minutes, not including commercials. Adapted by screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, currently represented by the unfortunate "College Road Trip," "Horton Hears a Who!" clocks in at 86 minutes, which doesn't sound long but still necessitates a number of narrative amplifications.
The film begins as the book does, with Horton taking a dip in a pool in the jungle of Nool. It is a jungle prone to mob rule and McCarthyite scare tactics. (A sly satirist, that Seuss.) A speck floats by, from which emanates a tiny cry for help. Soon the Mayor of Who-ville, invisible but not inaudible to Horton, converses with his newfound protector, and the valiant Horton pledges eternal vigilance. It's not easy. The elephant must endure humiliations, community loathing and the vicious jabberings of the monkeys known as the Wickershams before Who-ville makes a sufficient racket to be heard by those in Nool who do not, by temperament or political history, care about the little guy.
The Mayor's family issues and milquetoast character flaws have been greatly expanded, providing Steve Carell with a role equal in size to the Carrey-voiced Horton. This throws the story onto a seesaw, though the real flaw here isn't structural, it's more about the sense of humor. The script doesn't really have one. The chief strength here is the vocal cast. Isla Fisher's very droll as Dr. Mary Lou LaRue, lisping Who-ville wonk. Carol Burnett voices the fearsomely conformist kangaroo; Will Arnett oozes menace as Vlad the vulture, a Cold War-era nightmare of the Boris Badenov stripe.
The computer-generated animation - akin to the original drawings but rounder and puffier - is more cartoony than the blandly photorealistic vibe of the "Ice Age" pictures. Some of the animators' ideas play with form and style in interesting ways. In the first of two fantasy sequences, Horton dreams of saving Who-ville, and for a few seconds the animation switches to retro 2-D style, straight out of the book. You know what? It's not just different. It's better.
Like the book, the film version builds to a "Narnia"-like near-crucifixion of poor Horton, jacking up the tension, with composer John Powell pouring on the bombast - and then, again true to the book, Horton makes nice with the chastened kangaroo. (If only Mel Gibson had directed the movie: Then the rabid throng truly would've tasted the wrath of the righteous!) It feels off somehow, this climax, and it proves that narrative fidelity doesn't mean you're getting the tone right. Despite Geisel's fantastic imagination and global popularity, the stories he created resist the blockbuster impulse. "Horton Hears a Who!" may be less bludgeoning than either of the previous big-screen Seuss adaptations. For some that'll be recommendation enough.
MPAA rating: G
Running time: 1:26
Voiced by: Jim Carrey (Horton); Steve Carell (Mayor); Carol Burnett (Kangaroo); Will Arnett (Vlad); Isla Fisher (Dr. Mary Lou LaRue)
Directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino; written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, based on the book by Dr. Seuss; edited by Tim Nordquist; music by John Powell; art direction by Thomas Cardone; produced by Bob Gordon and Bruce Anderson. A Twentieth Century Fox release.