Review: Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!
4 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
That is my favorite popular quotation, and it was written by Dr. Seuss. Another Seuss saying, “A person is a person, no matter how small,” figures prominently into Horton Hears a Who!, one of the author’s most beloved books and the latest to be committed to film. Distributed by Pixar competitor Blue Sky Studios (whose claim to fame is the Oscar-nominated Ice Age franchise), the movie version is a great family entertainment that further solidifies the immortality of Seuss’ simple philosophies.
Unlike most people, I was not familiar with the story of Horton prior to seeing the film (the Seuss exposure of my childhood went no further than The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish – perhaps I was deprived). But to refresh the memories of the rest of the world, it takes place in the Jungle of Nool, an Eden-esque land where rotund elephant Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey) lives out his hedonistic existence. Horton’s carefree days of swan-diving off of palms into crystal pools and teaching his colorful friends about Nool’s many species of insects are interrupted when a minute “speck” is blown past his ear, emitting far more sound than just the whistle of the wind. With the aid of his acute, elephantine senses, Horton discovers the existence of an entire universe (“Whoville”) on the particle, via some very Seuss-ian acoustics. The realization charges Horton with the most important responsibility of his life: he must protect the inhabitants of Whoville (“Who’s”) from eradication at the hands of Nool’s closed-minded non-believers, led by the dictatorial Kangaroo (voiced by Carol Burnett).
The setting of the action in Horton is evenly split between the vibrant rainforest of Nool and the bustling microcosm of Whoville, a cloud-cloaked metropolis where The Mayor (voiced by Steve Carrell) presides over a legion of happy-go-lucky Who’s. The Mayor has the same dilemma as Horton: just as one cannot convince his forest friends that he’s in possession of an entire world of people on a dot, the other is unable to suade his townspeople (including his wife, son, and 96 daughters) into believing that a giant elephant in the sky holds the key to their salvation. The two are left to rely solely on one another, and venture down a road replete with potholes in the form of hired vulture assassins, treacherous ravine crossings, inclement weather, and some serious Who-quakes. Though they never meet, Horton and The Mayor form a trustful bond of friendship in the face of adversity, both social and environmental.
The environments in the movie appear as though they were lifted from the pages of the book and streamlined to accommodate our pixel-crisp, modern age. The characters within them look even better, as Blue Sky and directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino have finally taken the right approach in visualizing a Seuss world for the screen. Gone are the humans in head-to-toe fur costumes and mouse whiskers, a la Ron Howard’s hugely successful yet needlessly prolonged Grinch adaptation from 2000 and Mike Myers’ highly offensive embodiment of The Cat in the Hat from 2003. In their place are gorgeously detailed digital creations - watch out for the authenticity of Horton’s leathery skin, and the incredibly lifelike wingspan of Vlad the Vulture, in particular - voiced by some of the greatest comedic talents of our time. Along with Carrey, Carrell, and Burnett, Seth Rogen, Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, Jonah Hill, Isla Fisher and Jaime Pressly also lend their vocal skills to the project, giving each character a life that actually feels lived-in. If Seuss were alive to create the film versions of his books himself, they’d probably look something like this (save one, unnecessary anime/Pokemon sequence that achieves laughs, but little else).
Timeless human themes abound in all of Seuss’ work, yet it would seem none are as existential as the ones found in Horton Hears a Who!. Grown-up ideas of “how big is big?”, “what’s it all mean?”, and “why are we here?” are ingeniously infused into a story about an elephant and a bunch of little people, not unlike how the spirit of giving was sent home by way of the mishaps of a green, greedy sourpuss. While they may whiz by children’s heads like a dust particle in the wind, Seuss’ profound textual messages will make for fine, relevant material for generations to come.