Horton Hears A Who! (2008)

Horton Hears A Who! first published by Film4

Synopsis: This feature-length children’s film uses state-of-the-art CGI to imagine the mannered worlds of Dr Seuss. The voice cast includes Jim Carrey and Steve Carell.

Review: When Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr Seuss, first published his children’s book Horton Hears A Who! back in 1954, it was widely regarded as an allegorical critique of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the closed ideology of his House of Un-American Activities Committee. Years afterwards, America’s anti-abortion lobby would appropriate Horton’s famous catch-phrase “A person’s a person, no matter how small” to their own cause, leading an irate Seuss to threaten legal action, and his widow Audrey to actually file suit. All of which is to say that in spite (or perhaps because) of its sublime simplicity, Seuss’ book lends itself flexibly to all manner of interpretations – something which writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul have taken fully on board for their big-screen adaptation.

For here, Seuss’ story of an open-eared elephant preserving a microcosmos against the small-mindedness of his own community is made to resonate with all manner of contemporary preoccupations: America’s culture wars between faith-based religion and the empirical sciences, the need for democratic participation in a world where ‘moral majorities’ do not always talk sense, even the dangers of global warming (and the greater dangers posed by its naysayers).

All that, though, is for the parents in the audience – what makes this story of scale appeal so universally to children, apart from the bright colours, bizarre characters and gleefully absurd turns of phrase, is its concern with folk who are small, overlooked and easily ignored, and with authorities who can occasionally act with arbitrariness, irrationality and unfairness. Any kid will appreciate what dealing with that can be like.

One day while the child-like elephant Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey) is out swimming, he hears a voice coming from a speck of dust. That voice belongs to the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell), and Horton quickly realises there is a whole colony of minuscule people living on the speck who need his help if their fragile world is to abide in Horton’s own perilous environment.

The problem is, an officious, authoritarian Kangaroo (Carol Burnett) refuses to accept the existence of the Whos and is determined to prevent others from entertaining such a foolishly subversive notion – and so she enlists the vulture Vlad (Will Arnett) to destroy the speck (now attached to a clover flower that Horton carries with his trunk).

Meanwhile the Mayor has his own problems convincing the carefree Whos of their impending doom, despite all manner of ominous shifts in the weather. Sometimes, though, the smallest of creatures can be capable of making the loudest of noises.

Of all the attempts to bring Seuss to the screen so far, Horton Hears A Who! is far and away the most successful. Here, unlike in The Grinch (2000), Carrey’s gurning mannerisms are fortunately only heard and not seen, as Horton’s Dumbo-like elastic features, along with every other element of fluffy strangeness that makes up the film’s two worlds, are exquisitely realised in computer-generated animation – a medium to which Seuss’ daft landscapes seem perfectly suited.

Directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, Horton Hears A Who! looks beautiful, and as real as a topsy-turvy fantasia possibly could, but more importantly, it looks unmistakably Seussian. It could be argued that the CGI touches in The Cat In The Hat (2003) achieved much the same, but thankfully there is nothing like Mike Myers’ crude ‘n’ creepy turn as the Cat to be found in this new film. Here the sour-faced Kangaroo, the predatory Vlad, even the baying lynch mob of monkey Wickershams, all have their endearing side, and never feel out of place in a children’s film – while Carrell, more understated than Carrey, steals the show.

Best of all, the film promotes the values of perseverance, fidelity and a respect for others, while encouraging the wildest of imaginative leaps in young ones. And it does all this while staying true to the spirit, if not always the letter, of Seuss’ original.

In a nutshell: Beautifully realised, entertainingly absurd and as true to the original as a feature-length expansion can be, this animated allegory gets the child in all of us to think big thoughts about small things.

© Anton Bitel