March 20, 2008

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Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who (G))
Jim Carrey lends his voice to the elephant Horton, the only one who can hear the chattering of the microscopic Whos in Whoville, which exists on a speck held steady by a clover flower in Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who, a thankfully animated version of the Seuss book.

Live action, as The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat proved, just doesn’t capture the Seuss magic. Or rather, it captures it and turns it annoying and creepy.

Horton (Carrey) is a happy-go-lucky elephant whose big ears give him particularly sensitive hearing. Thusly one day when a mere speck passes by, he’s able to hear the cries coming from the speck. The cries are the frustrated calls of the Mayor of Whoville, Ned O’Malley (Steve Carell). The Mayor doesn’t know his whole world exists on a speck and so he doesn’t (at least at first) understand the danger he faces when his speck is dislodged from its resting place on a secluded flower to flit around the jungle. Horton, concerned with the fate of the squealing speck, catches it on a clover flower and strikes up a conversation with the Mayor. Horton has a slightly easier time believing that a whole town exists on a speck than the Mayor does believing that his world is protected from destruction by a giant elephant. But soon both believe in each other — though the Mayor also believes that telling people he believes in Horton might not help dispel the City Council-borne notion that he is “a boob.”

It doesn’t occur to Horton not to tell anybody about the speck and the Mayor, but soon he runs in to Kangaroo (Carol Burnett), a buzzkill busybody who hops about the jungle getting into other people’s (by which I mean animals’) affairs when she’s not busy pooch-schooling her young joey. Kangaroo tells him not to tell anybody about this speck nonsense, particularly the children, who might start using their imaginations and believing that things aren’t always what they seem. When Horton decides, against Kangaroo’s demands, to travel to the top of a mountain to find a safe home for the speck, she decides to set Vlad (Will Arnett) — the scary vulture, not the Vlad who is a bunny and bakes cookies — after Horton.

The joke about the two Vlads as well as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bunny-with-cookies sight gag at the end of the movie are part of what makes Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who fun — at least, fun for the half of the audience who drove the other half to the theater. (There’s plenty of big color, slapstick and monkey business — sometimes with actual monkeys — to keep the shorter half of the crowd mesmerized.)We also get flashes of old-school Seuss animation, a very funny anime sequence and throwaway jokes about the Mayor’s time-crunched parenting of his 96 daughters and one son. These bits are so fast, unexpected and charmingly funny that you can mostly forget that big chunks of the movie feel like padding.

And, even at 90 minutes, there is some padding here, padding mostly, I’d guess, to make up for the fact that this is Dr. Seuss, not J.K. Rowling, and there isn’t an endless amount of source material from which to wrest a movie. Some of the scenes of Kangaroo disapproving of Horton or the mayor wondering what to do seem a little drawn out. But this didn’t seem to lose the kids in the audience and my seven-year-old test subject was entertained enough that he made minimal requests for concession stand snacks and didn’t ask once about when the movie would end. (I will say, though, that that rapt attention might not always be a good thing, especially for the youngest movie goers; the non-bunny Vlad is played for laughs but he has big teeth and big talons and I heard at least one high-pitched scream when he came winging onto the screen.) And unlike other recent Seuss movies, the padding doesn’t get in the way of the central theme, which is roughly “a person’s a person no matter how small.”

I’m not sure what that line means to kids or what it would mean to me if I hadn’t heard the stories about the political uses for the phrase. But I choose to believe it means something like: you should be nice to your little brother and other little kids who might not be old enough to play a good game of tag or four-square but are still people and you should believe in yourself (after all, for most of the story only the Mayor and Horton know about or believe in each other’s existence), even if you’re the only person who hears the voices from the speck. B

Rated G. Directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino and written by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (from the book by Dr. Seuss), Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who is an hour and 28 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by 20th Century Fox.