Thursday, March 13, 2008
I suppose filmmakers think they’re putting something over on us by using the possessive author credit on literary adaptations. The suggestion is that the movie version is somehow more bona fide, closer to the original vision of the writer whose brand name is being invoked – and therefore more deserving of our faith. Thus The Mist is just another supernatural thriller, but Stephen King’s The Mist… now that’s the real deal. And of course the Bard would clearly be doing handsprings over what Baz Luhrmann did to William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.
Given the twin live-action grotesqueries that were Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, it was fair enough to take the attachment of the Seuss name to the computer-animated Horton Hears a Who! with at least a grain of salt, if not an entire salt lick. And once again, the seemingly intractable demands of contemporary family filmmaking have a Seuss adaptation straying considerably from the source. The only question is how much it matters if the film is a bit more true to Seuss’ gentle spirit.
True to the original, the story begins with verse narration (by Charles Osgood) introducing the Jungle of Nool and its kindest inhabitant, the elephant Horton (Jim Carrey). In due course he hears the requisite small noise, and after making contact with the mayor (Steve Carell) of Whoville, becomes convinced that there is, indeed, a tiny civilization on a speck of dust. While the Mayor attempts to convince his subjects that doom may be on the horizon, Horton resolves to save Whoville, despite the angry protestations of that sour kangaroo (Carol Burnett).
Political and social causes of all stripes have tried to co-opt Seuss over the years, and this interpretation isn’t going to make it any easier to interpret the author’s leanings. Directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino – alums of Blue Sky Studios’ Robots – oversee a fairly muddled mix of messages. Are the mayor’s frantic efforts to warn an intransigent city council and a skeptical populace about impending threats meant to mirror head-in-the-sand responses to climate-change warnings? What of the kangaroo, who appears to represent both a certain breed of “think of the children” hand-wringing moralist, with her “pouch-schooled” joey, and also a hardened skeptic who only believes in what she can hear, see or touch? And then there’s Horton himself, voiced by a surprisingly reined-in Carrey as an affable do-gooder but not so much a character with a boundlessly generous soul.
It’s not easy to figure out what it’s all supposed to add up to, and perhaps that will be enough to chase away those who revere Seuss’ works. Yet the film itself remains consistently engaging on its own terms. The opening-sequence journey of the wind-blown speck and the sequence introducing the geography of Whoville are both showy, but nonetheless effective bits of visual filmmaking. The action is particularly satisfying during the Whoville segments, as Carell gives the ineffectual mayor a real warmth and sense of purpose. Screenwriters Ken Dario and Cinco Paul keep their gags generally focused on character situations, rather than the obligatory “check out how hip we are” pop-culture reference points or hilarious-to-grade-schoolers bodily functions. Even when it does venture into meta-gags – like an extended bit in conventional 2-D animation interpreting Horton’s heroic fantasy as a manga-style adventure – they’re actually fairly funny.
By the standards of most contemporary kid-flicks, in fact, Horton Hears a Who! is quite charming. Yet it still dwells in a land where all the character arcs feel lifted from a dozen other family films, like the way the book’s “shirker” Jojo becomes the mayor’s moping son/reluctant-someday-heir-to-the-mayorarchy. And it’s fairly hard to believe that Dr. Seuss would feel the need to give his simple stories a big production-number finale, like this film’s sing-along to REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” Some day, it might be nice to see a movie with Seuss’ name on it that actually trusts the unique rhythms of his storytelling. For now, this may not be Seuss’ Whoville, but at least you can see it from here if you squint.
DR. SEUSS’ HORTON HEARS A WHO! ( 3 ) Directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino. • Starring the voices of Jim Carrey, Steve Carell and Carol Burnett. • G, 88 min. • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.