After the live-action debacles of The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat—bad bananas with greasy black peels—I approached Horton Hears a Who! with dread; I’m therefore torn between expressing relief that this cartoon version of Dr. Seuss’ classic exceeded my expectations, and conceding that my expectations couldn’t have been much lower. For what it’s worth, my kids, aged 10 and 4, were enthralled from start to finish, their dad found the experience mostly painless and sometimes pleasurable, and there weren’t any inappropriate sexual references to homina-homina through on the way home.
In filling out Seuss’ story-in-verse about a kindly elephant protecting a dust-speck world, the filmmakers have padded their running time with gracefully choreographed but needlessly long, convoluted action scenes, and glommed new characters and subplots onto a narrative that got along fine without them. I’m not sure why Horton the elephant, a persecuted true believer voiced by Jim Carrey, needed to be given a voice-of-caution sidekick mouse voiced by Seth Rogen and various mammalian pals that look up to him; nor can I see why the mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell) had to be given a parallel narrative in which he tries to convince his skeptical citizens that there’s a world beyond their sight. (This last embellishment seems to have been cribbed from the 1970 network TV version, directed by Chuck Jones—an adaptation which, if I recall, felt long even at 26 minutes.) These touches and others seem like nods to guru screenwriter William Goldman’s notorious admonition to “give the star everything”—even though the stars here, Carrey and Carell, are dads who were presumably thrilled to play beloved children’s book characters and didn’t need to have their virtual keesters kissed (at least I hope they didn’t; I hate to picture Carell telling the studio, “Yeah, I’ll play the mayor—if you give me as many lines as that s.o.b. Carrey”). The movie’s usually so true to Seuss’ spirit that when it throws in rote 21st century children’s entertainment elements—half-assed pop culture references; a last-minute singalong to REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” in a film that was musical-number-free up till then; a father-son reconciliation subplot between the mayor of Whoville and his disaffected son, Jo-Jo (a lone shirker in Seuss’ book, unrelated to the mayor)—you notice it more than you might in a a Shrek or Ice Age movie with a less respectable pedigree but a more boisterously junky style.
All in all, though, the ratio of innocent enthusiasm to commercial cartoon formula is higher than I expected. Co-directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, scriptwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio and the animators from Blue Sky (the Ice Age studio) have managed to adapt Seuss without turning him out, which I guess counts as progress. And the movie is a treat for the eyes, fleshing out the good Doctor’s twisty 2-D doodles without making them overdetermined or oppressive. The all-but-mandatory computer-animation cliche of swooping/diving perspective shots—flourishes that usually defy gravity so brazenly that after a while, you subconsciously realize that it’s all ones and zeros and cease being dazzled—are deployed here for artistically defensible reasons: to show the speck being dislodged by rainwater and drifting like Forrest Gump’s feather, or (better yet) to raise us high above Horton and his fellow creatures, the better to emphasize that Whos and jungle beasts alike are part of a cosmic continuum too vast to comprehend. (Did Terrence Malick direct second unit?)
I like the Junior League-mom-from-hell spin that Carol Burnett gives to the busybody kangaroo’s haughty killjoy lines, and Will Arnett’s gruff Russo-English patois as jerk vulture Vlad Vladikoff, who swipes the clover containing Horton’s dust speck and drops it into a valley filled with millions of clovers, and the high-angled shot of Horton working his way through the clover valley, piling the picked-over and discarded flowers into droopy columns whose pseudopod-like shape is unmistakably Seussian. None of this mitigates the fact that the ideal length for Horton is however long it takes to read it to my toddler. And while I realize Carell’s a comic genius who could crush me with his wallet, I’ll put my freaked-out, Munchkin-sounding Mayor of Whoville up against his lovable milquetoast reading any day. A star turn’s a star turn, no matter how smallish.
Matt Zoller Seitz is publisher of The House Next Door.