Saturday, March 15, 2008

Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! / *** (G)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Horton: Jim Carrey
The Mayor of Whoville: Steve Carell
Kangaroo: Carol Burnett
Vlad: Will Arnett
Morton: Seth Rogen
Councilman/Yummo Wickersham: Dan Folger
Dr. Mary Lou Larue: Isla Fisher
Tommy: Jonah Hill
Sally O’Malley: Amy Poehler
Narrator: Charles Osgood

20th Century Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios presents a film directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino. Written by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, based on the book by Dr. Seuss. Running time: 88 min. Rated G.

I suppose a more daring writer would write this review in the style of Dr. Seuss. I’ll admit I tried, but the movie deserves a little better than some bad rhyming schemes from a critic who is a far cry from a poet. “Horton Hears a Who!” is easily the most Seussian of the recent big screen adaptations of the renowned children’s author. Much of it seems cut directly from the imagination of the man also known as Theodore Giesle.

What “Horton” proves above all is that the stories of Dr. Seuss require an animated format. Following on the heels of Seuss adaptations “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “The Cat in the Hat”, “Horton” punctuates the failure of those films by freeing the story from the confines of realism that can’t be avoided with any level of make-up or elaborate set design. Horton exists in a cartoon universe that even has him dreaming in various animated styles.

For those of you either too far removed from your own childhood to remember the story or without children of your own, “Horton Hears a Who!” is about an elephant named Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey, “Fun with Dick and Jane”) who finds a speck of dust on a clover and hears the voice of someone on it. No one believes Horton when he tells them about the people on the speck. Kangaroo (Carol Burnett, “The Carol Burnett Show”) condemns Horton for telling lies and encouraging an unhealthy sense of imagination in the inhabitants of the jungle land of Nool where they live. “If you can’t see it, touch it, or hear it, then it doesn’t exist,” she says.

On the other end of the dust speck, as it were, there is The Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell, “Over the Hedge”). The Mayor notices some changes in Whoville after the speck upon which the town is located is loosed from its safe haven at the start of the film. There are tremors and weather changes and Horton speaks to him through his drain pipes. The Mayor must find his spine to let his citizens know that their world is in danger. Of course, the other Whos think the Mayor has sprung a leak in his head when he tells them of the giant invisible elephant in the sky who is trying to find a safe place for their speck. Just the idea that they live on a tiny speck is too much for most Whos to swallow.

While “The Grinch” and “The Cat in the Hat” struggled to find ways to expand Seuss’ short stories into feature length stories, screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (“The Santa Clause 2”) do a much better job filling the time with Seussian ideas. For example, the Mayor’s family consists of the Mayor and his wife and 97 children—96 daughters and one son—who the Mayor admirably spends a few seconds with each every day. If he spends a little more time on his one son, it is because the boy seems to be the shiest and the Mayor so wants his boy to carry on the family tradition by becoming one of the great mayors of Whoville one day.

The previous Dr. Seuss adaptations also struggled to create a production design that stayed within the wacky and lighthearted spirit of the Seuss artwork. What resulted were massive hulking sets that were dimly lit and conveyed little of the carefree imagination of the Seussian mindset. As animation, “Horton” is bright and colorful, highlighting the unique vision of Dr. Seuss’ worlds while expanding them into a three-dimensional format. “Horton” marks the first time Seuss’ unique architectural styles have felt natural on the big screen. And the carefree spirits of the characters don’t feel forced into an environment that is created for a staged production.

The animated format may have also freed first-time directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino from worrying about the logistical problems of live action to focus more on the underlying themes of Seuss’ work. As with so many family films, there is the obvious theme of believing in others and yourself, but this story holds many ideas in it that are surprisingly topical to the world we live in, the strongest being the way we deal with fear. The inhabitants of Nool become the victims of the fear-mongering of Kangaroo and her stooges, the bully monkey Yummo Wickersham (Dan Folger, “Balls of Fury”) and the mendacious eagle Vlad (Will Arnett, “Blades of Glory”). In Whoville the citizens fail to heed the Mayor’s warnings at the urging of the Whoville council, who are more interested in keeping everyone happy for their Whocentenial rather than safe. The Whos’ story also offers a strong case for respecting the environment.

But isn’t that just like a critic to dig up a bunch of messages in a film that’s meant to be fun? Well, “Horton Hears a Who!” is a lot of fun, with its bright colors, wacky characters and settings, and innocent approach to life. “Horton’s” primary audience won’t care about what reflections it offers on our world, and it provides plenty of laughs and rollercoaster madness to make for a fun trip to the movie theater.

And so for the Whos, and for Horton too,
There are more cheers than jeers, in this critic’s view.

Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.


Nicole said...

Just perplexed about your rating system. You gave The Cat in the Hat 4 stars - surely that is for the book and not the movie since movies haven't been made to my knowledge for all of the titles you listed on your scale. If you honestly would give that movie 4 stars I'll be in utter amazement. Horton on the other hand sounds good. I hope to see it.

Andrew D. Wells said...

Yes, that rating scale is for the books. Perhaps I should have used Green Eggs and Ham to avoid confussion. None of the other titles have been made into movies. As I indicate in the review The Cat in the Hat movie is terrible. I'd be hard press to award it even one star.

Andrew D. Wells said...

Well, now you've got me all flustered, Nicole. Because it wasn't my original intention to use book titles either, because far be it from me to say that any of the great Giesle's work is sub par. I meant to base the scale on the characters, so Green Eggs and Ham doesn't work either, so I'm going with The Grinch, not the movie! That's not the full title of the book or the movie, so it'll have to do.

Nicole said...

Thanks for the clarification! :-)