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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
April 2008

'Who'-dun-it

Dr. Seuss gets worthy treatment - for once - in 'Horton Hears a Who!'

Horton Hears a Who!
20th Century Fox
Director: Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino
Screenplay: Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, based on the book by Dr. Seuss
Starring the voices of: Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, Seth Rogen, Amy Poehler, Dan Fogler, Isla Fisher and Charles Osgood
Rated G / 1 hour, 28 minutes
(out of four)

I didn't think it ever would be done, or even could be done, but it finally has been done. It is accomplished. Someone has taken the spare, definitely-not-feature-length prose of Dr. Seuss and actually crafted a credible, full-length movie with it.

After live-action versions like the miserable The Cat in the Hat and the misguided How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the world of Dr. Seuss has been returned where it seems best suited: to animation.

The best compliment I can give Horton Hears a Who! is that, while I haven't read the book since I was a kid, the film made me want to pick it up again as soon as possible. (Now what I'd really like to see is The Lorax, but this'll do for now.)

Maybe it was something about the choice to go live-action that just didn't suit the material before. The humor struck the wrong tone, the visuals were garishly intrusive, the theoretically lovable characters were unpleasant and creepy when it was just a bunch of actors in caked-on makeup. The unique shapes and angles of every face, body, building, mountain; the expressiveness of every Who or Thing - all of it seemed buried under mounds of makeup and money.

All that work to make it look animated - but then why not just animate it in the first place? All that work just to replicate something that looked better in its natural, hand-drawn form all along.

Now, Horton Hears a Who! isn't hand-drawn, but it does capture a specific essence all its own. Just as a Bugs Bunny cartoon from the '50s to this day looks more natural than any motion-capture human from The Polar Express or Beowulf, the animated version of Whoville and beyond in Horton seems far more at home than the "real thing" in The Cat in the Hat.

Unlike the last two efforts to adapt Seuss, Horton, impressively, doesn't show any of the strain to stretch its story to a feature run time. Writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul and a talented cast have given dimension to the characters, and the film has a keen sense of visual design. The shapes and sizes, the design of each character - it's all recognizably Seussian yet new and unique at the same time. It becomes one of those rare family films where the basic storyline is only part of the purpose.

The basic storyline, of course, is that Horton (Jim Carrey), a lovably innocent elephant in the Jungle of Nool, quite accidentally becomes the caretaker of a speck of dust - which he carries around on a clover - that contains, way deep down inside, all of Whoville.

Whoville is in great danger - quite without its knowledge, of course, since nothing ever goes wrong with Whoville - because, basically, it can be blown away or crushed to bits at any moment. The residents have no idea that they exist in nothing but a speck on a flower in the middle of the jungle. Only The Mayor (Steve Carell) knows this, and he only knows this because Horton tells him. (They can talk to each other thanks to a crackerjack plumbing system with great acoustics - and, of course, Horton's great big ears.)

The Mayor can't even tell his wife and 97 children about it, much less the stuffy city council and the rest of the Whos, who are far too naively optimistic to think anything bad could happen.

And so it is up to Horton to get Whoville to safety, in a peaceful little crevice up on a mountain.

The only obstacle is Kangaroo (Carol Burnett), who sees the "speck" as further evidence that Horton is poisoning the minds of the jungle's children with tall tales and imagination.

One of the most impressive things about Horton Hears a Who! is the freedom the filmmakers give themselves to be creative within the confines of the story. They aren't constantly pushing to get to point B - they allow for characters to come to life before being thrust into the plot. They allow for comedic asides, witty dialogue - I particularly liked a faux-anime sequence in which Horton imagines himself as a crime-fighting hero battling treacherous villains in the jungle on his way to deliver the Whos to safety.

Even when the plot does have to get going, the film doesn't plow through it. The climactic 15 minutes are supremely executed, edited with precision to create a palpable sense of dramatic tension.

But perhaps the best moments of the film - for me, at least - are any and all moments involving Vlad, a sinister eagle mercenary that Kangaroo hires to take out the "speck" once and for all. The visual characteristics of Vlad - the darkened eyes, the dirty, jagged teeth, his tattered black feathers - are a perfect example of how to visually express an animated creature, and Will Arnett's brilliant voice work puts it over the top, making Vlad the film's funniest and most memorable character.

Maybe I was wrong with what I said before - maybe a film like this could be done in a live-action setting. But it's certainly been a struggle so far. Horton Hears a Who!, on the other hand, proves there's at least one way to do it, and do it right.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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