Joyously maintaining the rhythmic syntax and considerate spirit of Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who! is—save for 1966’s iconic animated TV version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!—the finest adaptation yet of the legendary children’s author’s work. Brought to life by Blue Sky Studios, this tender, big-hearted adventure astutely refuses to stray too far from its source material, padding out the book’s story in minor ways but remaining fundamentally faithful to its narrative and thematic template. Like so much of Seuss’s writing, the story’s enduring significance stems from both its ability to convey fundamental truths about the human condition via a superficially silly, gently whimsical yarn, as well as from its allegorical malleability.
Upon finding a speck of dust on a clover that houses creatures known as Whos, dependable elephant Horton (Jim Carrey) finds himself tasked with protecting their so-miniscule-they’re-invisible society from narrow-minded jungle animals led by a nasty kangaroo (Carol Burnett), a tale for which directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, wisely taking a cue from Seuss, provide significant symbolic breathing room. Horton and the Mayor of Whoville’s (Steve Carell) parallel quests to make others believe in something they can’t see is open to secular, religious, and political readings while also resonating as a stirring parable about courage, loyalty, equality, community, and tolerance. When the Whos, intent on proving their existence, shout en masse “We are here!,” they give voice to universal desires for recognition and self-actualization, sentiments whose touching earnestness is matched by Horton’s steadfast belief that “A person’s a person no matter how small.”
The action isn’t riotously funny or edge-of-your-seat thrilling, and Blue Sky’s fidelity to Seuss’s distinctive artistry is oh-so-slightly marred by character models and landscapes that sacrifice fantastical strangeness for stuffed-animal cuddliness. Yet by virtue of its compassionate, open-ended treatment of personal and social ethics, Horton Hears a Who! fully earns the right to be labeled profound. And to its credit, its creators neither allow the big-name voice actors to overstep their characters’ boundaries, nor do they pander to their pipsqueak or parent viewers by littering the action with scatological humor and soon-to-be-outdated pop-culture winks. Not to mention that, even when its vision does falter—as with a baffling Pokémon-ish 2D sequence—this charming and intelligent kid’s film is still light years superior to Carrey and Mike Myers’s respective live-action Seuss atrocities.