When it comes to making adaptations of Dr. Seuss there has to be incredible pressure, more so than filming almost any other author.
It's well known, and most would agree, that what makes an impression upon us in our youth, especially our childhood, can become almost sacred. The things that gave us comfort and joy as children can be incredibly powerful when we're adults.
And just like we're attached to our baby blanket, few of us can let go of Dr. Seuss. His work is just so dear to so many of us. Is there anyone out there who actually dislikes Dr. Seuss?
So, obviously... don't mess up Dr. Seuss!
And we've seen what happens when you do. The 2003 live-action "Cat in the Hat" is pretty widely regarded as a disaster, particularly for its more mature, adult elements. (You should know that you've corrupted something holy when your adaptation of a Dr. Seuss book is rated PG.) If anything good came out of it, though, it was that Dr. Seuss's widow has since refused to allow anymore live-action Seuss films, thus returning the Seuss adaptations to where they belong: the world of animation.
And boy, did they ever get it especially right in that department with the new Seuss movie, "Horton Hears a Who!," which holds the distinction of taking the Seuss world into the realm of computer animation, a medium which can truly capture the childlike spirit of the author's work. For those not familiar with the book - it was never one of my Seuss books, I was more of a "Green Eggs and Ham" and "The Lorax" kid - the story features an elephant named Horton (Jim Carrey) living in the jungle of Nool. Horton is an upbeat, kind, imaginative creature adored by the jungle's young animals. It's his influence with the children that's particularly threatening to the Kangaroo (Carol Burnett) who insists on maintaining the order of the forest and the "innocence" of the children at all costs.
So she is particularly threatened when Horton starts carrying around a speck on a purple clover and insisting that he's heard a voice. The elephant has made a tremendous discovery. With his large ears he's capable of hearing the microscopic inhabitants of Whoville, a people who live on a fantastic miniature world. The juxtaposition of two very different, wonderful animated settings is one of the film's strengths. On the one hand there's the lush beauty of the jungle. And then you jump down into Whoville and it's pure Seussian delight, a fantastic imaginary city of bizarre sights.
Horton's newfound friend in Whoville is Ned (Steve Carell), the mayor of Whoville, an accident-prone, scatterbrained, but likable fellow with 96 daughters, a sullen son, and his own problems with leaders fearful of upsetting a community's order. He routinely clashes with the city council that doesn't respect him at all. When he learns of the perilous plight of the Whos and the immediate danger they're in, he's quickly shut down and ridiculed.
Meanwhile Horton's problems have gotten larger. He realizes that the jungle is a dangerous place for a microscopic world. It could be destroyed at any time. So he begins a long trek to a safe place for Whoville, a secluded nook in the Nool jungle mountain faraway. It will not be an easy journey, though. When Horton refuses to submit to the Kangaroo by destroying the speck she is driven into a frenzy, tapping the assistance of a villainous buzzard (Will Arnett) who attacks Horton and Whoville.
It's really a wonderful picture, succeeding on so many levels, and staying true to the Seuss spirit while injecting enough modern touches. While many computer animated films are just filled to the brim with pop culture jokes - the "Shrek" series and "Bee Movie" come to mind, not that that's a bad thing - "Horton" is careful not to over do it. For a Seuss film it's fine to do some but wall-to-wall references just don't fit the source material.
The performances are also top notch. Carrey is perfect as Horton, really bringing to life an endearing character and not going nuts with his Carrey-isms. He and Steve Carell are also just fantastic together. It's their second picture - "Bruce Almighty" was the first - and the two really should make a point of working together more. Seth Rogen is also here too as Horton's supportive friend Morton. His work here now pretty clearly solidifies an affinity for voice performances as his work in "The Spiderwick Chronicles" first hinted.
And then there are the Seussian values which are just so alive and exhilarating. If there's any constant in the work of Dr Seuss - and there are many - then the celebration of creativity, individuality, and freedom is at the forefront. Authority is continually being challenged and conventions demolished. And it's this spirit that the film is so true to, and ultimately why it works and why fans of Dr. Seuss young and old will cherish it.
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