Dr. Seuss’ works have been successful in just about every medium in which they have been made. Everyone is familiar with the very popular children’s books. Several short films based on Seuss stories were made – one of which won an Oscar. One of the most loved holiday television specials of all time came from the good doctor. There are even two Broadway musicals. But recently it seems the one place Suessian magic has not been able to take hold is on the big screen. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) did well at the box office though critics weren’t impressed. And The Cat in the Hat (2003) took the franchise to a new low. Things were so bad that Audrey Geisel (custodian of the Seuss empire) is said to have decreed there would be no further live action adaptations. Turns out that was a very good decision.

Despite previous big screen Seuss adaptations,
don’t be afraid to go see this one!

In Horton Hears a Who!, a tiny speck is dislodged from the flower is was attached to and starts flying through the air. Horton, an elephant, hears a small “yelp” as the speck flies past him. Horton assumes, quite correctly it turns out, that there must be tiny people living on the speck. He places the speck on a clover and (with the help of his large ears to help him hear the tiny Who’s) starts talking to Ned, the Mayor of Whoville. The disruption caused from the speck being dislodged from its flower has caused chaos in Whoville and Ned asks Horton to find them a new home. Horton takes his job very seriously, though his jungle neighbors think he is crazy. One, a Sour Kangaroo, thinks Horton’s belief in something no one else can see or hear is dangerous and “for the children” decides she must destroy the clover to preserve the peace she has created with her rules.

I think one of the main problems with Seuss on the big screen lately has been that the original source material is so short compared with the needs of a typical feature film script. The 1966 TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas was successful, in part, because of its 26 minute short format. When you need to take that same story and translate it to a 104 minute feature, like the 2000 live action Grinch, you have to start padding. Which means that only one fourth of your film is actual Seuss. The other three-fourths is up to your writers and even a quarter of Seuss brilliance won’t overcome that much bad padding.

Make no mistake, Horton (coming in at 88 minutes) is at least two-thirds padding. But unlike its live action predecessors, these writers have channeled the spirit of Seuss much more faithfully. Just about everything new — from the town council to Jo-Jo’s contraption — seems like it could have come from the book. The only exception worth mentioning is Horton’s fleshed out personality. The sweet sincerity of Horton from the book clashes with the more hip, pop-culture referencing Horton at times. When Horton recites the beloved line from the book “a person’s a person no matter how small” the filmmaker’s can’t let the line live on its own as it has for over half a century. They have to ruin the moment a bit by having him follow it up with “That’s my code! My mot-to!” But other than some overt moments of contemporaneousness that just can’t seem be left out in modern movies, Horton is more fully in the Seuss world than ours. And also of note, the film is blessedly free of bodily function jokes — a rare treat in modern animated films!

Funny Carol Burnett shows a different side
in voicing Sour Kangaroo.

Just as the story (for the most part) stays true to its source material, the animation also is faithful to the original. Blue Sky Studios has very skillfully translated the simple 2D drawings from the book into a fantastic 3D computer generated world. This is one of the few cases where I can honestly say I can’t imagine this film being done using traditional animation. Not just the Who-world but the Who’s themselves have been brought perfectly to life. Sometimes certain 2D characters just don’t make the leap to 3D very well, but Horton and the Who’s do. The animators have done a wonderful job of getting the iconic style of the book into the film — in spite of an anime sequence that goes on a little too long!

Surprisingly, to me anyway, the big name voice actors are not as distracting as I assumed they would be. Jim Carrey is Jim Carrey and there is no hiding it. But after you get used to his Horton you can forget about it. Steve Carell meshes more easily into his character, Ned the mayor. Newsman Charles Osgood does a stellar job narrating the film, almost reaching Boris Karloff heights. But the real surprise here is Carol Burnett as the Sour Kangaroo. It would be very easy to play the character as just plain evil and get away with it, but Burnett’s portrayal of the villain is much more spot on with the spirit of the book — misguided, short-sighted, haughty, petty, and just plain mean, but not evil.

The really great thing about Horton Hears a Who! is that it is just so much fun. Forget worrying about the padding, the animation, or the lack of bodily function jokes. Don’t try to figure out why the song Can’t Fight This Feeling was put in the film when it does not fit in with the story at all! The film as a whole is so well put together that it is easy to just get lost in the enjoyment of the thing. In fact I was five to ten minutes into the movie before remembering I was supposed to be reviewing it! Kids, teens, and adults will have fun. And not on different levels as we usually say about a film enjoyed by all ages. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a perfectly fun film.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Horton Hears a Who!
Fox/Blue Sky
March 14, 2008
88 minutes
Rated G
directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino