*Horton Hears a Who! (G)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
I suppose filmmakers think they're putting something over on us by using the author's name on literary adaptations. The suggestion is that it somehow makes the movie version more bona fide. Thus, The Mist is just another supernatural thriller, but Stephen King's The Mist ... now that's the real deal.
Given that Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat were grotesque adaptations, it is wise to take the attachment of the Seuss name to the computer-animated Horton Hears a Who! with a grain of salt, if not an entire salt lick. And predictably, the filmmakers have produced a Seuss adaptation straying considerably from the source. The only question that remains is: How much does it matter especially if the film remains a bit more true to Seuss' gentle spirit?
True to the original, the story begins with verse narration (by Charles Osgood) introducing the Jungle of Nool and its kindest inhabitant, the elephant Horton (Jim Carrey). In due course he hears a small noise, and after making contact with the tiny Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell), becomes convinced that there is a microscopic civilization on a speck of dust. While the Mayor attempts to convince his subjects that doom may be near, Horton resolves to save Whoville despite the angry protestations of a sour kangaroo (Carol Burnett).
Political and social causes of all stripes have tried to co-opt Seuss' tale over the years, and this interpretation isn't going to make it any easier. Directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino oversee a fairly muddled mix of messages. Are the mayor's frantic efforts to warn the city council and a skeptical populace meant to mirror head-in-the-sand responses to climate-change warnings? What of the kangaroo, who appears to represent both "think of the children" hand-wringing moralists and hardened skeptics who only believe in what they can hear, see or touch?
Then there's Horton himself, voiced by a surprisingly reined-in Carrey as an affable do-gooder, but not really a character with a boundlessly generous soul.
It's not easy to figure out what it's supposed to add up to, and that may be enough to chase away Dr. Seuss fans. Yet, the film remains consistently engaging on its own terms.
The opening sequence following the wind-blown speck and the sequence introducing Whoville are both showy, but effective, bits of filmmaking. The action is particularly satisfying during Whoville segments, as Carell gives the ineffectual mayor a real warmth and sense of purpose. Screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul keep their gags generally focused on character situations, rather than "look how hip we are" pop-culture references or hilarious-to-grade-schoolers bodily functions.
Even when it does venture into meta-gags, like the sequence interpreting Horton's heroic fantasy as a manga-style adventure, it's actually funny.
In comparison to most contemporary kid-flicks, Horton Hears a Who! is quite charming. Yet it's hard to believe Dr. Seuss would feel the need to give his story a big REO Speedwagon production-number finale.
Someday, it might be nice to see a movie that actually trusts the unique rhythms of his storytelling. For now, this may not be Seuss' Whoville, but you can see it from here if you squint.