Somewhere on the other side of Who-ville, Dr. Seuss must be spinning in his grave, because Hollywood can't seem to leave his stories alone and can't seem to get them right. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, starring Jim Carrey, and The Cat in the Hat, starring Mike Myers, were both so overproduced you felt like you'd landed in a theme park from hell. Why throw so much money at stories that owe a good deal of their charm to Dr. Seuss' sense of economy, his ability to summon up a whole magical world with a few curlicues? And what about his light verse, which has taught two generations of youngsters how to read by seducing them with catchy rhymes? Why drown it out with dialogue that's devoid of any poetry whatsoever?
Well, here we go again. Horton Hears a Who! isn't the Brobdingnagian disaster that Grinch and Cat in the Hat were, but it throws way too much at this humble little children's book, desperately trying to pad it out to feature length. One nice thing: It's animated instead of live-action, so we don't have to make out what the characters are thinking through layers and layers of latex. And the animation itself is on quite a high level - computer-generated, but without that waxy shine you get sometimes. It's all a bit too 3-D for my taste, Dr. Seuss having kept his own illustrations on the flat side. And there are way too many colors, Dr. Seuss having gotten by with blue and red, for the most part. But the facial expressions and body movements are masterfully comic.
Jim Carrey, refusing to surrender, is back as the voice behind Horton, the elephant whose large, sensitive ears are picking up the sound of tiny voices emanating from a speck of dust that happened to float by. Turns out they're the good citizens of Who-ville, a microscopic world cast adrift on a gust of wind. And Horton, despite resistance from all his friends, takes it upon himself to lead them to safety. "A person's a person, no matter how small," he famously says, a line that pro-life groups have seized upon over the years. That's not exactly what Dr. Seuss meant. He was more concerned with the fate of the earth, the danger that, using atomic bombs, we'd blow ourselves away. First published in 1954, Horton Hears a Who! is an anti-nuke screed.
Okay, not a screed. Dr. Seuss was too subtle for that. And the movie has abandoned the anti-nuke theme altogether in favor of a message about not bridling our kids' imaginations. That isn't exactly a controversial position, but it's what the movie's going with. And so the kangaroo, who was a mere naysayer in the book, has become a veritable Torquemada of censorship. Luckily, she's voiced by Carol Burnett, who smoothes over the edges and injects some humor. Meanwhile, over in Who-ville, the mayor has gotten a promotion. He's now half the show, trading quips with Horton that only they can hear and trying to alert Who-ville to its imminent danger without letting on that anything's wrong. Steve Carell does some excellent voice work.
As for Carrey, he's been allowed to let 'er rip a bit. You even get the impression that he improvised some of his lines and the animators came along later and turned everything into elephantese. In the book, Horton's pretty ordinary. In the movie, he's a bit of a klutz, but with delusions of grandeur. And Carrey puts all sorts of words in his mouth, including an impersonation of Henry Kissinger for those of us who lived through the Nixon administration. Animation-wise, Horton's more like a frisky puppy, all but wagging his tail when things are going his way. But the animators managed to give him some weight while keeping him light on his feet. The scene where he crosses a rope bridge would be a classic if it didn't seem added on, a time-filler.
Time-filler, time-killer - it still might have worked if the story had been fleshed out in the manner of Dr. Seuss. Instead, it's gotten the Age of Irony treatment, all the contemporary references placed inside quote marks. The kangaroo says her kid is being "home-pouched," which may be code for "right-wing Christian" but is also just a lame joke. And in Who-ville they're building - I kid you not - luxury condos for no other reason than it struck a scriptwriter as amusing. At one point, Horton suddenly fantasizes he's in an animé episode, probably as a sop to the Pokémon crowd. None of this stuff is needed. Dr. Seuss, who brought in Green Eggs and Ham at under 50 words, knew that brevity is the soul of wit. One fish, two fish - less is more.