Was Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, oblivious to his own genius? The allegory of his charming Horton Hears a Who! remains fluid; its meaning, like the book’s crafty rhymes, ebbs and flows with the times. The conviction of an innocent pachyderm known as Horton to stand up against tyranny and protect the unseen Whos was once recognized as a reaction to McCarthyism—one as scorching as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The pro-life movement, to Seuss’ dismay, would co-opt Horton’s signature rallying call: “A person’s a person, no matter how small!” And I don’t hesitate to say that this venerable creature, given his essential decency and unquenchable need to enlighten the world, is best understood as a Jimmy Carter type. Such is the generosity of Seuss’ art: Beneath his bright, wild style thrives devilish moral and political ambiguity that invites our nuttiest observations and reflects our every belief.
Now a CGI movie you wouldn’t be remiss for dreading after Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Bo Welch’s The Cat in the Hat, Horton Hears a Who! has blessedly been conceived and executed in reverence to Seuss’ original story. The film’s verbal and visual interplay is not as batty or queer as it was in Chuck Jones’ 1970 short, and if the animation is prone to cruel and inexplicable digressions—from a lightning-fast flashback homage to Seuss’ 1954 animation to a shrill tip of the hat to the ninja-style high-jinks of Pokémon—the film pads out the original narrative with some meaningful new ideas. Unseen in the original Jungle of Nool, the young critters at Horton’s side may have plush-doll bodies that are obvious concessions to the film’s Saturday-morning demographic. But their ardent desire to learn from Horton stresses the filmmakers’ belief that Seuss’ panoptic message is something to pass like a torch between generations.
Behold chaos theory in action: An errant nut bumps a speck of dust from a flower’s cushion-tight pistil and into the air, until it nests on a clover near Horton (Jim Carrey). When the elephant learns that the town of Whoville resides within the curious particle, he is moved to hefty philosophical inquiry. “If you were way out in space, and you looked down at where we live, we would look like a speck,” Horton tells the rapt youth of Nool, who heed his urgent call to save Whoville’s denizens.
But the blinkered Kangaroo (Carol Burnett) will have none of it. If you can’t see, hear or feel it, it mustn’t exist, right? Wrong! And so, like the wee town’s mayor (Steve Carell)—who’s desperate to convince his peers that there’s a world beyond theirs—Horton struggles to explode preconceptions and make his voice heard.
Horton resists the excessive pop-cultural references of the Shrek franchise. Even at its most unbridled and inevitable—WhoSpace, where the people of Whoville connect with their friends!—the humor is in the spirit of Seuss’ original rhymes. Directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino mercifully find a muzzle for Carrey’s typically spastic energy: his voice is almost as unrecognizable here as his face was beneath the Grinch’s hairy green latex. When the script threatens to throw the movie off-kilter, as in a seemingly contrived reference to John F. Kennedy’s lunar aspirations, Carrey manages to find poignancy—in this instance, connecting Horton’s own hopeful ambitions to raise the consciousness of Nool’s motley populace to JFK’s.Horton, a “warrior poet” to his friend Morton (Seth Rogen), is the antithesis of the malicious Grinch. When a bird drops his prized clover into a vast field of similar flora, the elephant’s shock is palpable. It’s uncommon for a cartoon to be afflicted with such fierce conviction. And so it’s especially thrilling when this eye-opening film, during its nervy climax, doesn’t shy away from casting Horton as John Proctor to Kangaroo’s lynch mob. It’s also rare for a cartoon of this kind to find room in its vernacular for “the democratic process”—but don’t reduce Horton Hears a Who! to some lefty screed. Rather than trivializing or antagonizing with its collision of secular and religious beliefs, the film recognizes that faith is an essential part of both value systems. Respect is what Horton preaches. That’s a worthy message for everyone, no matter how small.
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