The emergence of this highly promoted and already rather highly regarded cartoon rendering of Dr. Seuss’ 1954 children’s book Horton Hears a Who! has been educational. For instance, I’ve learned that probably 50 percent of those on message boards with an opinion on Dr. Seuss can’t spell his name. More alarmingly, I’ve discovered that in the world of Seussian cinema you’ll draw critical applause if you manage to simply make a movie that isn’t as appallingly bad as Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) or Bo Welch’s The Cat in the Hat (2003). The first wouldn’t be too hard and the second is something I suspect my grandmother could pull off—and she’s been dead for 28 years.
I’m not saying that Horton is actively bad. It’s not. It’s probably terrific if you’re between the ages of 3 and 10. In fact, I overheard one small child telling his mother it was a “great film,” so bear that in mind if you’re looking at the movie from the standpoint of taking a youngster. And even for adults, it’s moderately entertaining. There’s a splendid scene involving the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carrell) whose arm goes limp due to a novocaine accident, and there’s a visually stunning sequence with Horton (Jim Carrey) in a field of clover. But claims that the film truly captures Dr. Seuss’ story and spirit are at the very least exaggerated.
Probably the closest anyone ever came to really pulling that off was Bob Clampett with the 1942 Warner Bros. cartoon Horton Hatches the Egg, which ran slightly under 10 minutes. After that, there’s Chuck Jones’ TV perennial, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), which at a mere 26 minutes still contained padding. And that’s where the problem arises—the need to stretch a very slender story to feature length (in this case 88 minutes). I’m not saying it couldn’t be done, but it’s a task that defeats screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul. Considering that their credits include College Road Trip (2008) and The Santa Clause 2 (2002), this is not that surprising. Nor does it come as a great shock in our postmodern world to find the film decked out in random pop-culture references. It may be depressing to find Horton remarking, “I love the smell of bananas in the morning,” but it’s not a shock—except to the degree that invoking Apocalypse Now (1979) is pretty old hat.
The real problem lies in the barrage of thematic inconsistencies of the tweaked material—sufficiently inconsistent that the overall movie seems to be suffering from multiple-personality disorder. Yes, the basics of the story are intact. It’s still the story of an elephant, Horton, who inadvertently finds himself in charge of protecting and saving Whoville, a community inhabiting what to normal-sized eyes appears to be a speck of dust that has become dislodged and is floating around in the air on the way to almost certain disaster. Catching the speck on a clover flower, he proceeds to make himself look ridiculous in his quest to save the microscopic community, since no one without his enormous ears can hear the residents of Whoville and therefore no one believes in their existence.
The story has always been open to interpretation concerning its possibly deeper meanings. For example, Horton sticks to his principles (which the movie turns into a kind of joke by tacking on a “Jim Carrey moment”) even when the officious Kangaroo (Carol Burnett) who rules the jungle of Nool demands that he recant—a point that has always suggested that the story’s overall tone was anti-McCarthy. Given the book’s 1954 publishing date, this is likely the case. And the phrase “a person’s a person no matter how small” has given rise to multiple interpretations—including an attempt (scotched by Seuss) at being co-opted by antiabortionists.
However, some rather peculiar things have been added to this version of the tale. The villainous Kangaroo has been handed the phrase—used more than once—“If you can’t see it, hear it or feel it, it doesn’t exist,” which, taken in context with Horton’s expanded role of savior of the Whos, starts to feel a little agenda-driven in a markedly un-Seussian, very fundamentalist way. Whether or not this troubles you, it sits awkwardly next to her McCarthy-esque tactics, her insistence that Horton is a menace “to the children” (a rallying cry that gets everyone worked up without a moment’s thought), and her own insistence on having her offspring “pouch-schooled.” It’s all simply too mixed up to make sense. Other additions—the Mayor’s emo son and the father-son clash of their relationship—are simply Hollywooden filler. None of this will matter to kids, of course, but to adults who know the material, it’s a far cry from the claims that the movie “finally got Dr. Seuss right.” Rated G.