Friday, March 14, 2008

Horton Hears a Who: Hear ye, hear ye!

Horton Hears a Who (2008) • View trailer for Horton Hears a Who
Four stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.14.08
Buy DVD: Horton Hears a Who • Buy Blu-Ray: Horton Hears a Who! [Blu-ray]

On the 15th of May,

In the jungle of Nool,

In the heat of the day,

In the cool of the pool,
Kangaroo, accustomed to making all the rules in the jungle of Nool, gets quite
put out when Horton the elephant refuses to surrender his clover ... because, as
he insists, it's sheltering a dust mote that is, in turn, home to an entire
microcosmic civilization. And how does he know this? Because every time he
cocks an ear and listens carefully, Horton hears a Who!

He was splashing —

Enjoying the jungle's great joys —

When Horton the elephant

Heard a small noise.

I can think of no higher compliment to pay directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, than to say that their big-screen adaptation of Horton Hears a Who looks, sounds and feels like a Dr. Seuss book come to life ... or, better still, like a film Theodor Geisel would have made himself, had he embraced the film medium (and been given a gazillion-dollar budget).

But then I shouldn't be surprised, because Blue Sky Studios — famed for its deservedly popular Ice Age franchise — is, along with Pixar, one of the few contemporary animation houses that understands the need to make story and voice performance as important as the eye-popping visuals.

In this case, scripters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio have skillfully expanded upon the original children's picture-book, and done so with such finesses that you'll be hard-pressed to determine where Dr. Seuss' original rhyming prose — half a century old at this point, but still sounding fresh — yields to 21st century embellishment (although I'll bet most 5-year-olds could tell you).

And as if to remind us that Dr. Seuss is best enjoyed when read aloud, narrator Charles Osgood interrupts the on-screen action every so often, just to remind us of where we are in the captivating narrative.

Many of Dr. Seuss' books have an important moral; Horton Hears a Who comes with several. Indeed, hearing our pachyderm protagonist insist that "a person's a person, no matter how small" carries even more weight these days, with so many people feeling disenfranchised by political and corporate monoliths. We all need a protective Horton in our lives.

The story unfolds on two fronts, starting with the irrepressibly jolly Horton — superbly voiced by Jim Carrey — as he cavorts in his favorite jungle pool. Horton also enjoys "instructing" the various beastlings that tag along in his wake, very few of which can be identified as any clear-cut species.

The only dark cloud in Horton's existence is the waspishly condescending Kangaroo (Carol Burnett), who views the elephant's cheerfully accommodating nature with suspicious distaste. Think of Horton as your favorite uncle, blended with a beloved schoolteacher, and Kangaroo as the stern, party-pooper principal forever raining on his parade.

Burnett gets a lot of chilling venom into her delivery; small wonder the much larger Horton quails in her presence.

Then, without warning, Horton chances to hear what sounds like somebody's voice emanating from a barely visible speck of dust. Immediately persuaded to safeguard this speck, Horton gently plants it on a clover, which he then carries with his trunk. And, before long, he learns that the speck does, indeed, harbor life.

A great deal of life.

Cue the debut of the story's second narrative front: an entire wildly colorful and cacophonous city dubbed Who-ville, inhabited by hundreds of Whos ... all of whom have no idea that their community is but a microscopic hiccup on a dust mote in a much larger world beyond their own.

Yes, this is the same Who-ville made famous in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Paul and Daurio have taken pains to reference the wildly fanciful inventions and household gadgets — sock-mobiles, crazed unicycles and giant slingshots — not to mention the mop-haired beings brought to similar life in that classic Chuck Jones TV adaptation.

(No sign of Cindy Lou Who, though. I kept hoping...)

Who-ville is managed by its somewhat flustered Mayor (Steve Carell), a devoted husband and father — to 96 daughters and one son — who doesn't quite realize the degree to which he's actually a powerless figurehead. This becomes clear when he attempts to share an exciting discovery — a voice from the sky (that would be Horton) — with everybody else in the city.

Naturally, they all assume the Mayor has lost his mind.

Which is a problem, because this contact from beyond isn't a simple academic exercise. Abruptly removed from whatever quiet pocket of Horton's universe it had occupied until now, the dust mote's exposure to wide open spaces has serious repercussions in Who-ville, where even small movements or temperature changes (on Horton's level) produce huge problems.

And to make matters worse, Horton's insistence on sheltering this dust mote is viewed as heresy by Kangaroo, who frets that he's poisoning young minds with this suggestion of life forms so different from those who inhabit the jungle of Nool. Horton refuses to abandon his mote, so Kangaroo hires the vicious Vlad-I-Koff — a mangy cross between an eagle and a vulture — to snatch and destroy the dust speck.


Although the story derives his building suspense from this conflict, the film's charm comes from its numerous incidental set-pieces: Horton trying to cross a wobbly rope bridge; the Mayor attempting to grant equal time to each of his children; Horton's young acolytes trying, in vain, to find microscopic civilizations in their own multicolored clovers. And do watch the expressions and bits of physical business granted background characters; this film will reward multiple viewings.

In lesser hands, such distractions would be pointless time-fillers intended to pad out the film's length. Not so here: Every scene is integrated smoothly with the greater storyline, and no single character — not even Horton — is allowed to become self- indulgent.

Indeed, just as Shrek's buddy Donkey brought much-needed respect to Eddie Murphy, after a string of dismal live-action flops, Carrey's vocal acting as Horton is the best work he has done in years.

Those unfamiliar with the story may be sad to realize that, cosmic limitations being so absolute, the beings from these two worlds never can meet. Horton and the Mayor of Who-ville can't possibly high-five each other.

But of course that's another of the story's crucial messages: Faith can move mountains ... or dust motes.

Amy Poehler co-stars as the Mayor's faithful if dubious wife, Sally; Jaime Pressly has a cute (if brief) role as Mrs. Quilligan, one of Kangaroo's many boot-lickers. Seth Rogen plays Horton's best friend, a rodent named Morton, pretty much the film's only noticeably under-developed character. Rogen's vocal chops are fine; Morton simply doesn't do anything.

Carell, having developed long-suffering angst into an artform, is delightful as the flustered and frustrated Mayor.

But Carrey truly runs away with the film; Horton's many whimsical asides, ad-libs and behavioral quirks expand this elephantine character just as successfully as Robin Williams made a superstar of the Genie in Disney's Aladdin.

At times, it seems clear that the animators even let Carrey's physique influence Horton's appearance; the actor's wonderfully wild expressions — and particularly his eyes — can be seen in the elephant's physiognomy.

More than anything else, though, you'll fall in love with the overall look of Horton Hears a Who. The film's watercolor palette feels appropriately Seussian — no doubt due, in great part, to the active participation of the author's wife, Audrey Geisel — and the story's subtly virtuous tone conveys a warm and fuzzy feeling.

You can't help feeling goosebumps when Horton solemnly affirms his personal motto: "I meant what I said, and I said what I meant: An elephant's faithful, one hundred percent." Carrey gives that line just the right emphasis, and the result is as heartfelt as Christopher Reeve's dedication, as Superman, to "truth, justice and the American way."

Horton Hears a Who is a true charmer, and perfectly positioned for families on spring break. Oh, and the film opens with a quickie teaser cartoon of Scrat, still trying to gather acorns, as a tantalizing prologue for the summer 2009 release of Ice Age 3.

I can't wait...

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