I really wanted to like “Horton Hears a Who,” the latest Dr. Seuss adaptation. Most critics enjoyed it. It’s beautifully computer-animated, which I think is a much better approach to the material than live action. At times, though usually brief, it even soars creatively. Unfortunately, it struggles throughout to find a consistent tone and proves to be mostly a disappointment.
“Horton,” as you’ll probably recall from your childhood or the 2006 production of “Seussical: The Musical” at the Little Theater, is the story of an elephant in the Jungle of Nool who hears a small voice one day. The voice comes from a spec of dust on a flower, which leads Horton (voiced here by Jim Carrey) to believe that there are tiny people on the spec. Most of the other animals on the island, especially a snooty kangaroo (Carol Burnett, not bad) think Horton is an idiot and mock him for wanting to help these invisible creatures. But, of course, Horton keeps saying, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” He ends up speaking with the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carrell) and working to try to convince everyone that their lives are worth saving.
Maybe one reason the movie hasn’t gotten more criticism is that it simply avoids being atrocious. Put it this way. You won’t be shuttering years from now thinking of how awful it was, as is the case with the earlier Seuss movies, 2000’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and 2003’s “The Cat in the Hat.” It often seemed like the films were created mostly to show off their gaudy production designs. Those movies also made the mistake of building the Seuss stories around the showy performances of their comic stars (Jim Carrey as the Grinch and Mike Myers as the Cat) instead of using the actors in service of Seuss’s stories and characters.
The use of animation in “Horton” makes it easier for the filmmakers to steer clear of that type of grandstanding for most of the time, but Carrey still occasionally can’t resist. There are a few pop culture references, a la “Shrek,” that stick out like a sore thumb when surrounded by the beautifully lush world the animators have created. One very out-of-place moment comes when a group of monkeys is throwing bananas at Horton as he is running from them. As he slips on one of the bananas, he does a Henry Kissinger impression, of all things, saying, “It appears as though the diplomatic process is beginning to break down.”
It’s hardly ever a good thing when something strange completely takes you out of a movie, no matter what the genre is. But when it’s in a film that takes place in a fantastical universe, it’s even weirder. When that moment arrived, I couldn’t help but think, “How did Horton ever hear of Kissinger? Or the Nixon administration in general? Is the Jungle of Nool close to Vietnam?”
OK, all kidding aside. The problem isn’t just that the character is implying that the real world coexists alongside his and is winking at the audience. An even bigger problem is that it seemed completely out of character to me, so different from the peaceful, naively sweet and simple character we’ve all come to know in Seuss’s (a.k.a. Theodore Geisel) book. Even worse than the Kissinger joke is a moment when Horton has a kung fu fantasy and the movie imitates the looks of anime cartoons. No wait a minute, the worst moment might have been when the Mayor’s secretary logs onto Whospace.com. No, it’s got to be when several characters, including Horton and the Mayor, sing along to R.E.O. Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” You get the idea. The film just keeps throwing this junk at you as if insisting that it will eventually be funny.
All these poor attempts at topical humor are maddening because all the writers needed to do to make a good movie was to tell the story that Geisel created. That’s what the audience is there to see, if I’m not mistaken. We’re not talking about some obscure children’s book for which the studio bought the rights and put a new spin on. The filmmakers have got to expect that most of the audience will have either a passing familiarity with the source material or a deep affinity for it. It’s not like “The Wizard of Oz.” Although L. Frank Baum’s book was beloved by many in turn-of-the-century America, most people for generations have come to know the story through the 1939 classic. But I would guess that far more people have read “Horton” and other Seuss books than the original “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and its 13 sequels.
So why would they want an occasionally ironic, jokey Horton? More importantly, why would anyone want him to keep switching gears and going back and forth? When the movie occasionally gets the tone and the character right, it only serves to remind the audience how good the movie could have been if the filmmakers had followed through with this potential.
Not only do the out-of-place jokes not work, but the movie is entirely too manic and noisy throughout most of its length, which grows exhausting very quickly. So why was this approach taken? My guess is that throwing in a bunch of lame jokes and slapstick was the only way to fill out an 88-minute long movie. It’s no coincidence that the most-loved Seuss adaptation is the Chuck Jones “Grinch” TV special from 1966. It’s 26 minutes long and there’s not a moment wasted in the whole thing.
Granted, we’re not likely to go back to the days of “Bambi,” when 70 minutes was considered long enough to be a movie. On a recent episode of “At the Movies with Ebert and Roper” (which hasn’t featured the ill Roger Ebert, but never mind), the critics suggested making a movie with several of Seuss’s stories so that it could just stick to what made the books great. I think that’s a great idea, but here’s what I would love to see. Why not make “Seussical” into an animated movie? It already takes the approach of using characters from a whole lot of Seuss books. The songs in it are really catchy and also capture the tone of his work. Unfortunately, this probably won’t happen since so much of the plot is lifted from “Horton,” which has proved to be a pretty big hit, grossing more than $117 million since it opened on March 14.
“Horton Hears a Who” is rated G for general audiences.