Horton Hears a Who / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | March 14, 2008 | Comments ()
Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who is a funny little book, and for those searching for deep allegorical meaning within the illustrated children’s poem, it’s hard to make sense of it, try as I might. The pro-lifers, famously, have used Horton the Elephant’s maxim, “A person’s a person no matter how small” to support their own agenda, but obviously that’s horribly misguided; at best, it’s completely unintentional (Theodor Geisel’s widow has, in at least one case, brought suit against pro-lifers for attempting to co-opt the phrase). And aside from that one suggestion, there’s nothing else in the source material to support it.
I suppose if you wanted, you could also ascribe some religious meaning to it, too. You could argue that Horton was some sort of Seussian Jesus, an elephantine prophet who insisted — in the face of a jungle full of kangaroo and monkey naysayers — that God did exist, even if you couldn’t see or hear him. But the book’s ending mucks all that up, if only because no one actually believed until they heard for themselves, hardly an endorsement for the existence of God since religious folks are supposed to act on blind faith before proof is offered up (unless the town of Whoville somehow represents the Second Coming). Hell, I suppose that Neocons hoping to recruit a new generation of lil’ Cheneys could also abuse Horton Hears a Who, pointing to it as evidence that there are, in fact, WMDs in Iraq — they’re just hidden on little bitty specks of dust waiting to be found. Right?
Screenwriting team Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (College Road Trip, The Santa Clause 2) take a slightly different tack with the big-screen version of Horton by thematically making the movie about the powers of imagination. They frame the Kangaroo (Carol Burnett), the Wickershams, and Vlad the Eagle, et al., as cynics hellbent on destroying independent thought, throwing the world of make believe in a beezlenut stew. That theme, however, also seems to backfire for the same reasons that using Horton as a religious allegory fails, namely that no one is convinced otherwise until proof is marshaled, seemingly proving the cynics’ point that, unless it can be seen or heard, it does not exist. And therefore, humbug to imagination.
So, I’m throwing my hands in the air and giving up on a deeper meaning, which I think Theodor Geisel would appreciate. Horton Hears a Who isn’t a political or religious allegory, it’s not a right-wing metaphor or communist propaganda, it’s just a great little book about tolerance and friendship, about helping someone in need, and about putting aside stubborn pride and asking for help when you need it. It’s a simple, sweet story about community, about rallying together to further humanity — or, er, who-manity. The point is: Adults should lay the fuck off, and stop trying to impute higher meaning to a kid’s story in furtherance of their own beliefs.
And if your bitchy core is hoping that the filmic version of Horton Hears a Who is another capitalistic assault, an exploitative rape on your childhood, I’m sorry to disappoint you. It is, at best, a bruise on your fond preadolescent memories. It shouldn’t even be spoken of in the same sentence as the other two Seussian shit trawlers, The Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat. Directors Steve Martino and Jimmy Hayward (the latter of whom was plucked from Pixar’s animation department) eschew live-action and present Horton Hears a Who as it should be, in splendid, vibrant animation, and my God (!) it’s amazing, perfectly capturing the illustrations on Dr. Seuss’ page. Above all else, Horton is gorgeous to look at, lush and lively, and it’s obvious that Hayward brought over at least the Pixar spirit when adapting the book.
It’s not a bad story, either. Even in the audio book version (well read by Dustin Hoffman, now available on ITunes!), it’s only 17 minutes long, but the writers responsible for College Road Trip must have had their brain cells grow three sizes while writing Horton. It’s not exactly genius, but it is inoffensive, and they manage to fill an entire 90 minutes while not only maintaining the spirit of Dr. Seuss’ book, but avoiding a lot of silly extraneous material (or noxious musical numbers). The biggest addition is the world of Whoville, looked over by its bumbling, kind-hearted Mayor (Steve Carell), who is easily the best part of the movie. After Horton discovers the speck and hears, with his large elephant ears, the screams of the mayor (after he inadvertently staples his own head), Horton and the Mayor strike up a conversation, gradually convincing one another of their existence — the Elephant is reluctant to believe there is an entire world living on a speck, while the Mayor only begrudgingly comes to believe that his civilization exists on a particle of dirt, on a clover, protected by an elephant. However, after talking it over with a Whoville scientist, Dr. Mary Lou Larue (Jamie Pressley), they surmise that their speck-world needs stability, lest it explode. So, the Mayor convinces Horton to help find a safe place for their civilization, a promise that Horton agrees to make.
The problem, unfortunately, is that the Kangaroo (Carol Burnett), a cynic with the personality of one of those religious nuts who wants to burn gays at the stake (she “home poaches” her little Jo Jo), doesn’t want anyone believing that anyone lives on that speck. I don’t really understand why — perhaps the existence of other worlds upsets her television watching habits — but I’m not inclined to question it too hard. The important thing is that she wants the speck destroyed before Horton finds a safe place for it, so she recruits Vlad the Eagle (Will Arnett, who is kind of perfect for voice work) and his razor-sharp teeth to make ash of the dust speck.
As Horton makes his way toward a cave on the highest peak in Nool, where he intends to relocate the speck, the lynch mob of monkeys and jungle creatures sharpens its knives and fires up their torches; meanwhile, the Mayor of Whoville tries to convince the city council that their world is in danger. If you’ve read the book, you know how it ends (with a giant Yawlp!) except that the book doesn’t include the over-the-top musical number, but I’m inclined to begrudgingly forgive the film for even that because it’s REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight this Feeling,” and if you don’t love that song deep down inside, well, in the (apt) words of Samantha Power, “You’re a monster.”
Though the quality of an animated feature is usually inversely proportional to the mainstream popularity of the celebrities voicing the charactes, Horton also defies that rule. On the whole, the voice talent — Seth Rogen Isla Fisher, Amy Poehler, Jonah Hill, Will Arnett, and Carol Burnett, among others — is pitch perfect, while Steve Carell stands out amongst them all. Unfortunately, subdued though he is here, Horton the Elephant still suffers from a little too much of Jim Carey’s brand of muggy obnoxiousness. He’s not terrible, but he’s not reigned in as much as he should be, and I think any number of big names could’ve done a significantly better job of it. Still, not even comedic Carrey could do enough to fuck up Horton. It’s not on the same level as Pixar’s offerings, but outside of that almost perfect world, it’s about as good as you can expect. Most importantly, much of Dr. Seuss’ original poetry, narrated by Charles Osgood, is kept intact, loopily fueling the story right along.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.