Few people will deny that Dr. Seuss is one of the great American children's authors of the 20th century. His books are justifiably celebrated for their wonderfully unique language, eccentric characters, and intelligent social commentary disguised as nonsense. The complexity of his rhymes makes his stories as equally appealing to adults as they are to children, and many of his creations have found their way into pop culture. Adapting Dr. Seuss' works for other media, on the other hand, has produced variable results, from the superb (the 1966 TV special "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!") to the surprisingly successful (the Broadway musical "Seussical") to the downright embarrassing (2003's live-action disaster "The Cat in the Hat"). The major flaw in trying to adapt Seuss' books into feature films is that filmmakers are taking stories that are so inherently dependent on language and the imagination inspired by the printed page and padding them out with literal, often grotesque visuals that fail to capture the whimsy of the original works.
With that said, the latest Dr. Seuss adaptation may have staked new ground for feature films based on the author's work. The first computer-animated film to be inspired by Dr. Seuss, "Horton Hears a Who!" is genuinely appealing and mostly true to the spirit of the 1954 book, which was originally adapted as an animated TV special in 1970.
Horton (Jim Carrey) is a loveable elephant who spends his days teaching lessons to the young animals of the jungle. One windy day, as a small speck of dust blows past him, Horton hears a small yelp from the speck. Concerned that someone may be in danger, he follows the speck and manages to recover it on the tip of a clover. To his surprise, the tiny speck holds an entire, microscopic village called Whoville, which is inhabited by a colorful community of people called Whos. Oblivious to the enormous world beyond their speck, the Whos lead a peaceful and happy existence, the highlight of which is their upcoming "WhoSentennial." Not so happy is the mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell), an honest man who is called a boob by the city council and is generally disrespected by the community. When Horton begins to speak to the speck, the mayor is the only one who can hear him (through a pipe in his office). Horton informs the mayor that the Whos are in potential danger if the speck is disturbed, but he vows to protect them. The mayor tries to warn the council of the imminent danger and postpone the WhoSentennial, but they refuse to believe that there is another world outside of Whoville.
Trouble brews for Horton as well when a narrow-minded, vindictive mama kangaroo (Carol Burnett) catches him talking to the speck. She, like the Whos, does not believe that another world exists, and she grows suspicious of Horton's fantastic claims. Believing that he may incite subversive actions and (egad!) inspire the youngsters to use their imagination, she enlists the help of a nasty vulture, Vlad Vladikoff (Will Arnett), to steal and destroy the speck. Horton remains unperturbed, devoting himself to protecting the small community. Meanwhile, the Who mayor tries his best to convince his people that Horton and the larger world really do exist, and if they want to survive, they must make enough noise for those in the outside world to hear them. However, with a council whose only concern is the WhoSentennial keeping strict control over the city, the mayor's best intentions are consistently thwarted.
What is most remarkable about this film is the fidelity it retains to Seuss' work and intentions. The animation, although three-dimensional, contains all of the recognizable idiosyncrasies of Seuss' original drawings, giving the characters that same charm that readers have cherished over the decades. Whoville, especially, is a visual wonder, abounding in color, detail, and little nuggets of humor that will likely take several viewings to appreciate. The jungle setting, while perhaps not as outrageously creative as Whoville, is filled with its own joys, particularly its striking realism. There are some shots that one would swear were live action. A scene in which Horton desperately rummages through a seemingly limitless field of pink clovers in search of the one holding the speck is breathtaking in its expansiveness, suggesting a real world without borders. On a technical level, the film is quite amazing.
Another way in which it remains faithful to Dr. Seuss' work is in its overriding message, boiling down to the now famous quote, "A person's a person, no matter how small." The filmmakers have opened up the story considerably to introduce some timely elements that could potentially turn off some viewers if presented heavy-handedly, but they are tempered enough that the points are made without disrupting the enjoyment of the story. Specifically, the kangaroo's ultra-conservative paranoia concerning Horton's unusual behavior leads her to rile the jungle animals into an angry mob and threaten to boil Morton and his speck alive (!) unless he stops making his outrageous claims. A similar theme is presented in Whoville, where the mayor's warnings are pooh-poohed by the unwavering council (I'm sure I'm reading too much into this, but it is humorous that the incompetent mayor of Whoville has a giant "W" on the back of his chair). Lest anyone think that the film reflects a solely liberal bias, there is also a nod to the power of religion, as the mayor struggles to make the Whos accept that there is a greater power out there who is protecting them and needs their devotion. There is a lot going on, indeed, in the world of Dr. Seuss.
All of this, however, will go right over children's heads. They will be far more entertained by the simple story and the oddball characters. This is Jim Carrey's second foray into the world of Seuss, having previously starred in the live-action adaptation of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (2000). As Horton, he delivers a sweetly comical, if not overly remarkable performance that endears the character immediately. Steve Carell is also good, although restrained, as the befuddled mayor. More fun are the smaller characters, including the bumbling would-be villain Vlad, a mouse named Morton (voiced by Seth Rogen) who remains Horton's sole supporter, and a truly freaky little furball named Katie. Katie is described by the filmmakers as a baby yak, although she bears absolutely no resemblance to one. She has tiny legs, huge eyes that have the ability to each look in different directions at the same time, and a frog's tongue. When smiling or simply walking around, she is the most adorable animated character you ever saw, but when she opens her mouth and lets out her trademark sigh, she turns chillingly creepy. She is totally superfluous to the story, but she manages to steal every scene she is in.
Of course, not every element of this adaptation works. Like most contemporary animated films, this one has a tendency to overload on contemporary pop-culture references. Much of Carrey's adlibbing, while funny in and of itself, clashes with the overall Seussian tone of the film. There is an inconsistency in dialogue, as the characters sometimes speak in the memorable rhymes of the book and other times in normal speech. It seems that it would be more effective to either go one way or the other, as a rhyming line is often followed by one that does not, causing an awkward disparity. While the 3D animation is excellent, a brief 2D sequence animated in the style of Japanese anime seems out of place and unnecessary, once again veering too far from the original spirit. The film really loses it when the characters break out in a rather corny rendition of REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling." In spite of these flaws, "Horton Hears a Who!" mostly gets it right, resulting in a film that is fun for all ages, carries the social messages that Dr. Seuss cleverly weaved into his stories, and brings to life his unique creations with faithfulness and style.
The film debuts on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Unfortunately, I was provided with a watermarked screener copy that is not indicative of the true picture quality that will appear on the commercial DVD, so I cannot accurately review the image. I have little doubt, however, that the picture will be pristine and vibrant, as new digital cartoons generally are.
Audio is presented in English DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. These sound just fine, nicely separating the dialogue and sound effects. The music is delivered clearly throughout without overpowering the dialogue. The more elaborate scenes are filled with great audio detail that is faithfully rendered on the soundtracks available. In addition to the English tracks, there are stereo tracks in French and Spanish. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Fox has delivered the film in a fantastic Special Edition that boasts a plethora of substantial bonus features, starting with a commentary track with directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino. The directors provide a pleasant track, discussing the technical details as well as the casting, the story, and other interesting topics.
Next is a considerable amount of deleted footage, presented in animated storyboards, rough animation, and "almost final" animation. The directors provide a brief introduction as well as offer optional commentary on all of the footage.
This is followed by a series of animation screen tests, demonstrating how the animators experimented with the movements for the characters of Horton, the mayor, and the Whos. Animator Nick Bruno provides an introduction, while the directors offer audio commentary on an original short cartoon where they first experimented with Horton.
A five-minute featurette, "Bringing the Characters to Life," features interviews with the various animators on how they mimicked human movement and characteristics to animate the film's characters. The highlight of this feature is the side-by-side comparisons between footage from the final film and video of the animators "acting out" the parts themselves in order to get a sense of how the characters should look and move.
"That's One Big Elephant: Animating Horton" is an eight-minute featurette focusing specifically on the creation of Horton.
"Meet Katie" gives us a four-minute look at the creation and bizarre thought process behind this truly unusual character.
The eight-minute "Bringing Seuss to Screen" covers the adaptation of Seuss' story and original drawings for film. The directors and writers discuss how the story was opened up for feature length and how they remained true to the visuals of the book.
"The Elephant in the Room: Jim Carrey" is a five-minute segment about, not surprisingly, the casting of Jim Carrey.
"A Person Is a Person: A Universal Message" lasts four minutes and offers brief commentary on the story's underlying message.
"Our Speck: Where Do We Fit In?" is the most unusual featurette. It is essentially a four-minute public service announcement featuring kids discussing ways that we can save the environment.
"Elephant Fun: The Facts" is a five-minute "Animal Planet"-style bit aimed at children with an animal expert relaying interesting facts about elephants.
There is a set-top game for children called "We Are Here!" It is a basic hand-eye coordination game, similar to those on many DVDs for children. There is also a DVD-ROM feature, "Create Your Own Animation."
In addition to all of this, Fox has provided a bonus short film, "Surviving Sid," a spin-off of the 2002 animated film "Ice Age," revolving around John Leguizamo's title character. At eight minutes, it is a fun little bonus. There is also the obligatory digital copy of "Horton Hears a Who!" on a second disc. With so much supplemental material, I am only surprised that there is next to nothing on the cast, save for the lone piece on Carrey.
"Horton Hears a Who!" is just an enjoyable film, effectively capturing Dr. Seuss' visual style and mostly retaining his social commentary (if adding on a bit too much more). While not without its flaws, it stands as the best feature-length adaptation of the author's work to date and holds its own with beautiful animation and fun characters. It is a movie that parents will enjoy watching right along with their children, and I would advise those parents to seize the opportunity to share the original books by Dr. Seuss with their children as well.