I don’t know what the percentage is, but some part of genius is brevity. The works of Dr. Seuss have endured not only for their great humor and humanism, but because he had the good sense to keep ‘em short. Horton Hears A Who!, the 1954 book about an elephant who becomes protector to a civilization living on a dust mote, runs only a few dozen pages. Even so, the book is laden with meaning, which could lead to the assumption that it would make ideal fodder for a feature film like this one.
In actuality, Horton makes ideal fodder for a half-hour piece of animation, which is why Seuss collaborated on one with Chuck Jones almost forty years ago. The result might not have been perfect, but it hit closer to the mark than this version manages.
Happily the story is generally unchanged for ’08. Horton (Jim Carrey) hears a voice coming from a speck of dust while swimming and realizes that he’s found an entire world smaller than a pinhead. The voice belongs to the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell) with whom Horton strikes up a friendship. Determined to find a home for the speck, Horton is opposed by a snooty kangaroo (a perfectly cast Carol Burnett) who tries to rally the denizens of the jungle against Horton and his speck full of ‘imaginary’ friends.
“Think of the children!” goes the kangaroo’s rallying call. Seuss published his book as McCarthyism began to die and his call for tolerance was hardly veiled. This version pushes to contemporize the story by emphasizing Horton’s corruptive potential, but new bits of dialogue, as you might expect, grate against Seuss’ original words and ideas.
I don’t keep Jim Carrey’s CV in mind all the time, and I was surprised to realize that this is his first gig in feature animation. (His last animated character occurred sixteen years ago, in The Itsy Bitsy Spider.) Carrey is well suited for the work; his voice carries more sincerity than his rubbery face. So he makes a surprisingly good Horton as his voice conveys timidity, gentleness and determination with equal agility. Trademark eccentricities do come through on occasion, mostly during Horton’s new flights of fancy, in which some die-hards will accuse Carrey of breaking character.
I don’t feel any need to attack the movie on this point. Deviations from the source are a given; there isn’t enough material to turn this into a feature otherwise. And while some of the digressions and jokes are already stale (making fun of MySpace? still?) some of the jokey padding is alright. Horton daydreams a couple times, occasionally dipping into some Seuss-style line animation, which is irresistible even in brief. Another time he fantasizes a more elaborate sequence that pokes fun at anime. It’s juvenile, clearly aimed at kids and…yeah, I thought it was funny. Sue me.
Though I don’t need to take Carrey and the film apart for his indulgences, I can’t say that the seams don’t show. Anyone tuned even vaguely into the gentle tone of the original will spot the ‘new’ material immediately. I got a few laughs out of Seth Rogen’s voice work for the mouse Morton, but mostly because I enjoy Rogen; he doesn’t really belong in this movie. Slightly more appropriate are Will Arnett as Vlad the evil eagle and Isla Fisher’s over the top Who scientist.
Steve Carell poses a more complex question. His voice work is good, and while often very specifically ‘Carell’, but he feels at home in the movie. While the padding really shows in the Jungle of Nool, I found the expanded portrayal of Whoville far easier to stomach thanks in large part to Carell. I didn’t even tense up at the emo makeover given to Jo-Jo, though I wouldn’t fault anyone who did.
I can’t come up with any technical burps that are worth pointing out, as the animation is mostly flawless. Seuss’s characteristic drawings leap to the screen without feeling too much like they’ve been artificially inflated. There’s a lot of weird and appropriate improvisation when the camera lingers over the expanse of Whoville, and the denizens of the Jungle of Nool are rendered with more fidelity to Seuss than they are voiced.
I don’t mean to imply that Horton 2008 isn’t entertaining or a reasonable facsimile of the Seuss mindset. This is a fine movie for children, and it represents a considerable leap forward for the author’s work in feature films. (My five-word review of The Cat In The Hat, back in the day: “Like being raped by clowns.”) This movie is occasionally quite funny and manages to get the point of the book across more or less intact.
What it does not do is impress. Horton Hears A Who! is never as smart as the work it seeks to adapt, which is a significant pitfall. Even if the book hasn’t been thoroughly internalized by audiences, I’d guess that kids will know what belongs and what doesn’t, putting the movie at a disadvantage with its prime demographic. That, more than any internal dissonance, is what’ll hurt Horton the most.