Friday, March 21, 2008

Hollywood's 'Horton' captures most of Dr. Seuss' magic

After the uneven “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and the disastrous “The Cat in the Hat,” the idea of Hollywood taking on another Dr. Seuss classic was hardly appealing, but with “Horton Hears a Who” the good doctor has finally been given the treatment he deserves.

Although “Horton” is a computer-animated film, the filmmakers wisely didn’t go for the motion capture realism that made “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf’ a bit creepy. Directors Jimmy Hayward (a veteran from Pixar) and Steve Martino get the look right. It helps that the film is animated instead of live action. Animation allows for all of Dr. Seuss’ wild imagination and all his Rube Goldberg-esque machines to be fully realized.

The innate problem with adapting Dr. Seuss to a feature length film is that you have to inevitably pad the story. There really is only about a half hour of material in a Dr. Seuss book, so it is no surprise that many of his books were successful animated into a 30-minute format in the 1960s through to the 1980s.

The previous two attempts at expanding his material to 90 minutes failed because they missed the essence of what continues to draw children to Dr. Seuss. It is his whimsy, invention and sweetness that has allowed him to endure. But the “Grinch” and especially “The Cat in the Hat” were mean-spirited, ugly films that were little more than vehicles for Jim Carrey and Mike Myers to do their comic shtick.

The additional material added to the story of Horton — a gentle elephant who vows to protect the world he rightly believes lives on a speck of dust — for the most part is in tone with the source material. Carrey is back for his second crack at Dr. Seuss as Horton, but thankfully he is relatively restrained. There are only isolated moments where Carrey goes off on random comedic tangents that break away from the spirit of Dr. Seuss.

Only one scene — a dream sequence parodying Japanese anime — is a completely unnecessary departure from the story. It is a mildly amusing bit, but has no business being in the final cut of the film. It would’ve been a fun deleted scene, but in the context of the film it is a head-scratcher.

Other scenes, though, are great fun and are perfectly worthy padding. A scene in which Horton has to cross a precarious bridge while the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell, “The Office”) is at the dentist is hilarious with every little bump for Horton causing an earthquake for Whoville.

There are also small moments of inspiration that would do Seuss proud. The malleability of Horton’s ears is a reoccurring bit throughout the film that is quite amusing. Horton uses them as a diving cap, a hat and a blanket.

Carrey and Carell as the main characters give solid vocal performances and are well supported by a cast of familiar voices. Seth Rogan as Morton, a hyperactive mouse who is the only animal in the jungle that stands by Horton, delivers another strong voice-over performance following his work in “The Spiderwick Chronicles.”

Carol Burnett is perfectly snooty as Kangaroo, who doesn’t like the free thinking Horton bringing disorder to the jungle. Will Arnett (“Arrested Development”) gives a great comedic performance as Vlad, a vulture for hire sent to destroy the flower on which Whoville is perched.

“Horton Hears a Who” has been taken up by some in political debate. You know it is an election year when even a Dr. Seuss story becomes a political talking point. Some are claiming the film is pro-life (or anti-abortion, if you prefer) because of its reoccurring theme “a person is a person no matter how small.”

Others have read into the story as a parable about the importance of faith with both Horton and Mayor of Whoville being persecuted for believing in something no one else can hear. One review by Gina Carbone from Seacoast Newspapers went as far as to say: “‘Horton Hears a Who’ could do for intelligent design what ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ did for global warming.”

Written in 1954, “Horton Hears a Who” was meant to have a political undercurrent as an attack on McCarthyism. Kangaroo, who riles the jungle up into an angry mob and insists Horton admit that Whoville doesn’t exist, is an obvious stand-in for McCarthy.

“Horton Hears a Who” is about standing up for the little guy and letting every voice be heard, even the ones you don’t necessarily agree with. It is a simple moral of tolerance, a good message for children and adults alike, and the film incarnation delivers that message with humor and surprising pathos. It took Hollywood three tries, but at least they finally got Dr. Seuss right.

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