One of the most beloved of all children's authors and illustrators, the late, great Theodor S. Giesel, receives another big-screen adaptation with the computer-animated "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" As with previous book-to-film treatments, 2000's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas
" and 2003's "The Cat in the Hat
," there's just one problem: what could be translated into a wonderful and even educational thirty-minute short is stretched and padded to the brink when forced to fill out a feature-length running time. There is a lot that is very good about "Horton Hears a Who!"the setup is mostly understated and wondrous, while the third act is unexpectedly touchingbut the lackadaisical, directionless middle segment becomes something of an endurance test.
Happy-go-lucky Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey) is an elephant living among a world of animals in the Jungle of Nool who, to his astonishment, hears a voice coming from a tiny speck of dust. It turns out that on this speck resides an entire land called Whoville, complete with a community of Whos who live in houses, have jobs, and go to school just as regular humans do. The Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell), who must be diplomatic in the time he spends with each of his ninety-six daughters and solitary brooding son, JoJo (Jesse McCartney), is the one who makes contact with Horton, and he's equally surprised and confounded by the realization that there is a larger world beyond Whoville. Horton is adamant to the other animals that there is life on this speck, but, because they do not have ears big enough to hear the voices Horton does, the outspoken, narrow-minded Kangaroo (Carol Burnett) labels him a liar and wants the speck destroyed. Now it's up to Horton and the Mayor to join forces and find a way to prove to the doubting Kangaroo that Whoville does exist before it's too late.
"Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" was directed by first-timers Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, and written by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (2008's "College Road Trip
"). They stay amazingly faithful to the source material even as they are forced to expand upon the main characters and, to this viewer's dismay, throw in unnecessary references to other movies ("Apocalypse Now") and songs (the characters have a sing-along at the end to REO Speedwagon's "I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore"). The most admirable aspect of the film is its important message, which refreshingly is not the same old "be true to yourself" moral that most family films are. Instead, the picture (as well as the book) takes a stand against nasty fundamentalism and those that refuse to accept what they can't hear, see, or personally believe in. As Horton proclaims several times, "A person's a person, no matter how small," and these profound words are something that parents and children would benefit in discussing.
Candy-colored and visually stimulating, the creative animated conceptualization of Whoville is a treat to behold, a cross between Dr. Seuss' original illustrations and the surreal artwork of M.C. Escher. The characters within that world and in the Jungle of Nool are less memorable, most of them less than dynamic as personalities and their participation in the story labored so that an hour and a half can be filled up. The exceptions are Horton, of course, who is lovable despite getting bogged down at times in the shticky voice work of Jim Carrey (2007's "The Number 23
"); the Mayor of Whoville and his intelligent loner son JoJo; and Kangaroo, who is a villainess that, by the finale, Carol Burnett effectively humanizes. The rest of the unnecessary A-list talent is criminally wasted, drawing attention not to their characters but to their voice recognizability, while the story hems and haws to such a strenuous degree in the second act that children and grown-ups alike are bound to get restless (they did at the advance screening I attended). The film does make a return to form in time for the inspirational, feel-good climax, but it comes just a little too late.
Audiences seeking out a quality family film could do a lot worse than "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" With that said, they could also just watch the previous 26-minute animated version currently available on DVD and get the same from it in less time. There is one irksome moment that also warrants mentioning. In a bid to show his son that their family comes from a long line of upstanding do-gooders, the Mayor walks JoJo through the pictures of their great male ancestors hanging on the walls of their home. When he reaches a picture of one of them dressed like a ballerina, the Mayor quickly says, "Not so great," and moves on. While this is meant to be a throwaway joke, it is at direct odds with the movie's message about accepting diversity and offensively has no place being there. Who could have thought that was a good idea for a G-rated kid's pic? "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" fortunately comes back from this misguided attempt at humor, but it never quite figures out how to develop the well-known but short story in a way that feels natural and unstrained.