Horton Hears a Who! (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Admittedly, it's been about 35 years since I was reader of Dr. Seuss, but my memories of his books are that they're short and economical with words. Neither of those descriptions applies to this theatrical version of Horton Hears a Who!, which has found a way to take a thin, pithy book and stretch it out to feature length - despite the fact that a completely acceptable and much shorter version already exists. This is not the first time the good doctor's material has undergone such stretching. The live action How the Grinch Stole Christmas survived the experience but The Cat in the Hat suffered fate worse than eating green eggs and ham. Horton Hears a Who! doesn't enter the live-action realm, which is probably a good thing, but the lengthened result has its own charm and is enjoyable in a family-friendly sort of way, even if it feels a little like Dr. Seuss by way of Ice Age.

Horton (voice of Jim Carrey) is an elephant who lives his life much as animated elephants in animated jungles do, until the day a remarkable things happens. He discovers voices coming from a speck of dust as it floats by his enormous ears. Convinced that there are tiny people on that speck of dust, Horton captures it on the tip of a clover flower and endeavors to communicate with its inhabitants. He succeeds, and begins a conversation with the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell), who urges Horton to find a safe place for the speck lest his entire world be wiped out. Horton agrees, but he encounters resistance. The Kangaroo (Carol Burnett) who rules over the jungle is a firm believer in the doctrine that "if you can't see it, it's not there," and she can't see any people on Horton's speck, so she hires the vulture Vlad (Will Arnett) to eliminate it. Meanwhile, the Mayor has trouble convincing the Whos that there's a big elephant in the sky talking to him. Even his wife, Sally (Amy Poehler), is skeptical. Only a Doctor Who named Mary Lou Larue (Isla Fisher) believes him.

With the familiar intonations of Charles Osgood reading passages from the original text, the story progresses reasonably quickly, although there are action sequences that expand beyond Dr. Seuss's rhymes . There are also two interesting animation-within-animation sequences. The first replicates the look and feel of the book precisely. The second re-invents the story as a dubbed martial arts extravaganza. Adults will likely get more out of these than their children.

Jim Carrey re-invents Horton much as Robin Williams did with the Genie of the Lamp in Disney's animated Aladdin. Horton's a bigger-than-life character in more ways than one, and one has to wonder how much of the dialogue was ad-libbed. Steve Carell is more reserved as the Mayor but this goes along with the nature of the part. Will Arnett has fun with Vlad, the vulture with a bad Dracula accent who's more Wiley Coyote than fearsome predator. Although there are some other famous names in the cast (Carol Burnett, Seth Rogan, Isla Fisher, Amy Poehler), their voices are largely anonymous, which is a good thing.

When it comes to 3D animation, Fox has been the ugly stepchild of the three major studios regularly producing animated features (behind Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks). This represents a major step forward in terms of "look" from the Ice Age movies. The opening Rube Goldberg-inspired sequence is an example of what can be done when creativity meets CGI. It's a complex and involving tracking shot that shows how the speck is dislodged from its "home" and sent floating in Horton's direction, and it does an excellent job of drawing the viewer into the movie.

The feature, like the book, toys with the childhood fantasy that there could be worlds within worlds. Who as a child has not wondered whether there could be tiny communities living on dust motes or whether this entire world might be a spinning blue speck in the gargantuan living room of the cosmos? As an adult, it's easy to dismiss this sort of thing, but it's the kind of idea that can enrapture and fascinate a child, whose concepts of reality and fantasy haven't been honed by the harshness of a world where make-believe is discouraged.

Fundamentally, Horton Hears a Who! is a kids' movie but, as is often the case with today's animated features, care is taken to include material that works on two levels. This enables adults who accompany their offspring to stave off boredom. While I would not place Horton Hears a Who! on the same level as some of the best animated films, it's acceptable family fare. There are messages for those who look for such things (about having faith in things that can't be seen - the religious aspect is hard to ignore - and treating people the same regardless of their differences) but the movie can be enjoyed on a less intellectual level. Few kids who seek out Horton will regret doing so - a view perhaps shared by those who ferry them fro.

Horton Hears a Who! (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2008-03-14
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1