Horton Hears a Who! (Jimmy Hayward & Steve Martino, 2008)
Hollywood has been severely cruel to Theodor Geisel, more popularly known as Dr. Seuss. Ron Howard's adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), with Jim Carey as the infamous green loner, is the cinematic equivalent of regurgitated spinach. Bo Welch's The Cat in the Hat (2003) is much much worse. With Mike Myers as the titular character, the film felt like a neverending journey up a diarrheal rectum. Both movies are live-action kid movies, with Dr. Seuss' narrative padded to fill the running time requirements of a feature film (as if anyone would complain if they were shorter). Riddled with an uneasy mixture of modern-day shallowness and coarseness, Dr. Seuss' skeletal plotwork, and creative incompetence, the movies suffer from chronic lack of good taste.
It is thus surprising how Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino's Horton Hears a Who! turned out. While still reveling in spectacle with several sequences that feature theme park kinetics and cotton candy aesthetics like most computer generated animated films, it maintains a consistent charm within the purely commercial framework. It's just that, a purely charming and entertaining CGI cartoon which is somewhat rare outside the confines of Pixar Studios. The movie survives despite the obligatory paddings to Dr. Seuss' rhymes since it maintains the comfortable simplicity of the source material, only adding extraneous characters or events without puncturing the core of the story's primary message that "a person's a person, no matter how small."
Of course, the Hollywood version of Horton Hears a Who! injects a bit of modern sensibility to the material. Substantially altering the role of the Who's, the filmmakers were able to infuse the very pertinent issue of climate change into the picture, much more reasonably and effectively than in the humorous but far too irreverent homage to Al Gore in The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman, 2007). The politics in Horton's homely jungle feels a tad too familiar with its authoritarian kangaroo (voiced with maternal severity by Carol Burnett) sending mobs of apes to destroy a community she neglects to believe to exist, echoing of course the sentiment in America's more than willful xenophobia and that xenophobia's more than disastrous effects in foreign communities. These observations are of course mere suggestions, making the viewing a lot more interesting than suffering through chains of toilet humor, visual jokes, and brainless action scenes.
The difficulty of having stars portray memorable literary characters is that there tends to be an imbalance of forces, of the personality of the celebrity and the fictional character. I believe this is what made How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Cat in the Hat triply infuriating: that underneath the fur and the prosthetics, you can still absolutely pinpoint the comedians portraying them. Horton Hears a Who!'s remarkable feat is that it was able to tame Carey's voice work (probably without the opportunity to make use of his malleable face, he was able to sufficiently sink into character), giving Horton a personality, although not totally independent from Carey's but distinct enough to work. Steve Carell lends his voice to the Mayor of Whoville quite adeptly, infusing the character with Carell's everyman characteristic. My favorite voice work however goes to Will Arnett, who voices Vlad the Vulture with impeccable reference to the great Bela Lugosi (the animators sufficiently doing their job by giving the ruthless vulture wings that move and flow like Dracula's infamous cape).
While I would still prefer hand-drawn, puppet, stop-motion animation to the very artificial aesthetics of computer-generated animation, I can't help but be pleased by Horton Hears a Who!'s pleasant look, which I thought aptly subscribes to Dr. Seuss' more simplistic sketchings. There's an amiable quality to the visual concept, where the bizarre is mixed with the cute, and photorealism is mixed with cartoon. Even the movement bears a notion of depth, which is very very important in a film that tackles cosmological relations of worlds, one deep inside a speck atop a clover flower and one wherein that clover flower is a mere item compared to its vastness. There are breaks to the consistent tone of the computer-generated aesthetics, such as when we are given a glance at Horton's wild imagination in two sequences that borrow Dr. Seuss' more familiar two-dimensional artwork and anime. Rather than amuse, these breaks connote needless gimmickry.
I saw the movie with my little sister, who mostly because of me has learned to suffer and inevitably enjoy everything from Miyazaki to Bollywood (which unfortunately includes some junkfood from Hollywood). She enjoyed herself. I tend to vocally disagree with her whenever she finds a film amusing, in the hope that she grows up with a veritable taste in film and an ability to defend her liking or hating a movie with much more dignity and defiance than the ordinary moviegoer. With Horton Hears a Who!, I just can't help but keep quiet and let her be in her state of euphoric joy since I too was satisfied. It's definitely not great animation, but it's surprisingly good.