Seated behind me at a critics' screening of Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! were a well-known movie reviewer and her date, a young child. At the end the child, audibly in rapture, asked, "Did you love the movie?" "I love that you loved it," was the nicely evasive reply. But the child was persistent. "Will you give it a rave? Will you give it four stars?"
I'm with the kid. I hearted Horton, laughing at the funny parts, welling up at the inspirational bits. For the story concocted in 1954 by children's author Ted Geisel has more than a few messages, all of which resound 54 years later. The book is about belief in what you can't see, fidelity to a cause that others think is ridiculous, and community service to reach an improbable goal. We're all in this together, Seuss says; everyone's important. Or, as Horton puts it: "A person's a person, no matter how small."
The new version, from 20th Century Fox's Blue Sky Studios (Ice Age, Robots), shows a pleasingly Hortonian faithfulness to the original story; and the process of fleshing it out Geisel's anapestic rhymes to feature-film length seems smart, sensible and organic. Narrated by Charles Osgood of CBS Sunday Morning, and making superior use of the voice talents of Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Carol Burnett, Seth Rogen, Will Arnett and others, the movie proves a funny, elevating ride that should beguile the young and keep their parents or grandparents enthralled too. For once, the G rating stands for Glorious.
Universes within universes the interdependency of all living things everywhere is Geisel's theme in Horton. In the Jungle of Nool something foreign lands on a piece of clover. It's not a spaceship but an entire alien world: the nearly infinitesimal planet of Who-ville. Horton the elephant, his large ears giving him the most acute hearing, detects cries from the clover speck. He can't see the little Whos, but he deduces, believes, knows that sentient creatures are in there; and his caring instinct tells him that they must be protected. He builds a rapport with the tiny planet's resident scientist, Dr. Hoovey, who is having just as much trouble convincing his villagers that there's a giant outside force, unseen but benevolent, that will determine their future.
Horton is a naturally generous soul; in an earlier Seuss story, Horton Hatches the Egg, he had stolidly perched on an irresponsible bird's egg, and stayed at the job for nearly a year, because he had promised he would. "I meant what I said and I said what I meant: An elephant's faithful one hundred percent." This time, his mission is even more perilous. He must fend off the agnostic scorn of prime jungle bureaucrat Jane Kangaroo and her simian minions the Wickersham brothers. Kangaroo charges a "black-bottomed eagle" to fly the speck to a remote spot and dump it in a giant field of clover, where Horton would have to overcome tremendous odds just to locate it. Actually, the Who-ville speck would be quite safe in that field (which might be home to three billion tiny worlds). For Horton to bring the Whos back to the jungle will surely put them in renewed danger. But Horton must be not just the hero of the story but the teacher of its moral. Both are large and satisfying indeed.
In 1970, the book became a handsomely detailed TV perennial directed by Chuck Jones, the Warner Bros. animation genius who had worked with Geisel on the wartime Private Snafu cartoons and, in 1966, brought Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! to the small screen. This Horton was narrated by another old Geisel colleague, Hans Conried, the actor who had incarnated that pedagogue-demagogue, that piano-teacher torturer, Dr. Terwilliker in Geisel's fantastical live-action film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. And you shouldn't miss the elephant's first appearance in movies, in the Warners cartoon Horton Hatches the Egg directed by Bob Clampett. This wonderfully vigorous adaptation can be found on YouTube. (But don't let the kids peek at the next offering on the YouTube list: the non-Seuss, very Spitzer-sounding Horton Hires a Ho.)
The Blue Sky version is directed by Jimmy Hayward, a Pixar veteran who worked as an animator on that studio's first five features, and Steve Martino. They have elaborated on the TV show's designs to develop a dense, gorgeously goofy Who-ville a town, of bright colors and sweetly tilting towers, that might have been dreamed by Antonio Gaudi and Red Grooms. Who-ville has a daft architectural logic that makes a comely contrast to the jungle lushness of Nool.
The film's big narrative change is to turn Dr. Hoovey into the cheerful, desperately busy, increasingly addled Mayor of Who-ville (voiced by Carell). On top of his day job, the Mayor has 96 kids to whom he can devoted only 12 secs. each at breakfast time. After all those girls he had a son, JoJo, a silent, sulking lad in Goth attire. (In the original, and JoJo was unrelated to the main Whovian just "a very small shirker" who performs a crucial role at the climax.) So the movie combines two kinds of parenting: literally, as the Mayor and JoJo find a project to bring them together, and figuratively, as Horton (a fine vocal job by Carrey) grandly represents the kindness of strangers.
In the early scenes, fastidious viewers may be wearied by a glut of comic references to movies of the '50s (The Thing from Another World) and the '70s (Apocalypse Now) that should probably be deleted from the anything-for-a-joke book. The movie also briefly and unnecessarily invokes the voices of Henry Kissinger and JFK. But ransacking pop culture is what cartoons do, and not just the gag-strewn Shrek movies. Clampett's Horton Hatches the Egg has a Katharine Hepburn bird, a Peter Lorre fish (that commits suicide!) and the Horace Heidt novelty hit "The Hut Sut Song." Even the more restrained Jones ended his Horton with a twist on a twist of John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." The cast sings, "Be kind to your small-person friends," a variation on the "Be kind to your web-footed friends" chorus from "Crazy Mixed-Up Song," a novelty hit of the '50s performed by two other stars of Dr. T, Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy. In the Seuss universe, as in Horton's, everyone's connected.
The new Horton movie also has a very contemporary, front-page vibe. In their years preparing the film, Hayward and Martini, couldn't have anticipated the political connection, but the bossy Kangaroo (voiced by Burnett) seems strangely like Hillary Clinton. "That Horton's a menace," she says, adding, as if it were a crime against humanity. "He's got rabbits using their imaginations!" The lady does all in her nattering power to sabotage Horton's mission, and sends out her surrogates the Wickersham monkeys acting like so many fractious Ferraros on a whispering campaign against the idealistic elephant (who, in this case, should probably be a donkey). Yet the movie keeps the audience rooting for idealism, for the unlikely hero, for the audacity of Horton.
These accidental campaign allusions, and the old-jokes meant to keep senior members of the audience in the loop, soon subside, as the film starts parading its strong story sense and its plethora of heart. There's an old-fashioned suspense sequence, in which Horton tries to navigate a rickety rope bridge, that's as well choreographed as any action scene from an Indiana Jones movie. So is the climax, with the Who-villagers shouting in desperate chorus to save both their world and their benefactor's life. I won't say it's emotionally wrenching, but the man sitting in front of the child at the screening was bathed in tears.
You may leave the movie with Seussian anapests dancing in your happy head. Here's mine: A treat for the eye, an epic event/ This film is delightful, one hundred percent.