Oh, thank goodness, the third time IS the charm. Finally, finally, and finally, Hollywood gives us a movie that actually and perfectly embodies the spirit of Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. Criminey crickets! Horton Hears a Who! is wholly imaginative fun that feels like it’s channeling the good doctor’s playful exuberance and ingenious creativity with every syllable and splotch of animation.
The biggest difference between this movie and the recent adaptations of Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas is that Horton Hears a Who! was created using CGI animation, not live action, not adults in goofy costumery. And that permits directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino to, well, animate a Dr. Seuss book. Part of the charm of Seuss’s books was their otherworldly atmosphere, with just a touch of reality thrown in so kids could identify with the characters and underlying themes. And it makes such a wonderful difference! When you throw actors into suits, you take away both the personality of the actor and the appeal of the Seussiverse, if you will. What you’re left with is an overproduced, unpleasant mess that tries desperately to be relevant and interesting and fails miserably at both.
Anyway, back to this movie. Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey) is an elephant in a world sort of like ours, but not really (as evidenced by the myriad odd creatures inhabiting Horton’s jungle). Now, if you’ve read the books you know that Horton’s a bit of what we’d call a free spirit. He has a short attention span, and he’s always so hap-hap-happy. The kids in the jungle (er, animal kids) look up to him, sort of as a big plaything (since Horton’s an adult, supposedly), and he in turn tries to teach them about the jungle and its mysteries and dangers.
Well, one day Horton spots a stray clover floating by on a breeze, and he hears what he believes is a cry for help. Oh, but it’s not the clover, it’s a speck ON the clover. And way down within the heart of that speck, there’s a whole ‘nother world, the land of Whoville. Populated by the Whos, of course. And it seems that when the flower became detached from its root, strange things had been afoot in the land of the Whos, like strange cloud formations and odd weather patterns.
The mayor of Whoville (voiced by Steve Carell) is a bit of a screw up, a patsy, a boob (in the words of the town’s head councilman, voiced by Dan Fogler of Knocked Up); he’s in his position to look nice and smile wide. The Mayor has 96 daughters – and one son! – and a lovely wife, and between spending time with them and planning for the Whocentennial, he’s worrying about the signs of impending doom he keeps seeing.
And then Horton says hello, and those signs become reality. And it’s up to Horton to find a safe place for the speck to sit, so that the Whoniverse (see what I did there?) can survive in peace, as it has for centuries. But there’s a problem – the other denizens of the jungle, led by Kangaroo (voiced by Carol Burnett, who’s apparently alive and well), who believes the speck represents imagination, which she doesn’t want the jungle kidlets to have – because then they’ll be questioning authority, and we can’t have that! (Seuss was quite the subversive.) So Horton races to get the speck to shelter while fending off attacks from monkeys and vultures and whatnot.
Carrey is awesome as the childlike Horton, a kind-hearted, if perhaps a bit naive, pachyderm who truly believes in what he cannot see (i.e., the Whos), because he can be wild and spastic and hilarious. I mean, after all, it is a cartoon; characters should be outlandish, not subtlely shaded. Carrey’s riffing (and ad-libbing, I bet) will remind you of Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy in their signature animated roles – untethered joy and comedy. Steve Carrell is aces as the beleagured mayor who does believe in Horton’s existence, even if no one else does; he has sort of an easygoing flustered personality about him that is the counterbalancing adult to Horton’s whimsy.
The movie’s basically a metaphor for love, frankly. Kangaroo says she does not believe in anything she cannot see or touch, and it’s evident that she lives on the fear of the other animals, not on their love. She doesn’t even appear to love her own son; she thinks of herself more of a caregiver than a mother. Kids should always mind their parents, no matter how dumb their requests and actions are. So Kangaroo does not believe in the Whos, because she cannot see them, just as she does not believe in love. But of course, since this is an animated movie, all does turn out okay in the end, with Lessons Learned.