Saturday, March 22, 2008

REVIEW: Horton Hears A Who (2008)

Slowly, through the process of trial and error, Hollywood is getting closer to figuring out how to turn Dr. Seuss books into feature-films. Sadly, the process wasn't far along enough to prevent "The Grinch" and (moreso) "The Cat in The Hat" from miscarriage; and "Horton" here doesn't QUITE stick the landing... but at least there's steady progress and hopefully it'll all be worked out by the time "The Butter Battle Book" lands on the to-do pile.

Like most Seuss stories, "Horton" is a nonsense tale in nonsense language, told in a straightforward voice at a semi-rapid pace: Horton is a jungle Elephant who, one day, here's a voice coming from a dust-speck and discovers that said 'speck' is actually a tiny but inhabitted world: Whoville, home of the Who's who are as oblivious to 'our' existance as we are to theirs. Horton's nemesis, a snooty Kangaroo who's devotion to empiricism borders - paradoxically - on the religious, makes it her mission to see that the "insane" Horton is locked up for 'hearing voices' and that the speck be destroyed to make a point... which Horton, naturally, cannot allow.

Concieved in the period before Seuss's narratives grew more explicit in their message-making (there's NO mistaking, for example, what "Butter Battle Book" is saying about the Cold War nor "The Lorax's" position on the evironment) "Horton" has been interpreted as everything from a parable of racial equality to an anti-McCarthyism fable to a condemnation of atheism; and it's stern refrain of "a person's a person no matter how small" has of course made it a favorite 'claimed work' of the Anti-Abortion movement. And, let's face it: If you WANTED to stage a fairytale for the 'against' side of the reproductive-rights debate, an elephant protecting tiny life from a (notably female) villian who's evil is predicated on a belief that only that which can be seen is real is pretty-much exactly what you'd be looking for.

But, honestly, such business would almost-certainly be both presumptive and in poor taste: When Dr. Seuss wanted to deliver a message, he was VERY clear about it - and in "Horton," the pleas for belief in the unknown are strictly in the realm of general fairytale magic... not some sort of religious message. It's natural to try and apply bigger meaning to small stories, but in this case it does more than a little disservice. It's a movie about an elephant talking to people on a speck, leave it at that.

The problem with doing Dr. Seuss in movie form is that movies have to be at least 90 minutes long, and his work was brief by design. "Grinch" and "Cat" stumbled by opting to use overplotting and comic tangents for padding, and while "Horton's" slightly-denser original story eases the need for this somewhat it still winds up feeling a little long in the tooth - mostly because it opts to expand the running time but not the story itself. The characters are just as broad, and the story just as basic, as it was as a short book; now it's just spaced-out by chase sequences (good idea) and comic digressions (not such a good idea.) A better movie could likely be made by deepening the characters (WHY is Kangaroo such a bitch-on-wheels?) or ratcheting up the tension, but the shot-for goal here seems more to be light comedy than Pixar-style ani-drama.

The main thing it gets right is to accomplish the story in animation, as opposed to the costumed-human approach of the prior two Seuss features. It's kind of amazing to see that Seuss-style devices and architecture don't even appear physically-probable in animation, but it beats the hell out of watching Mike Meyers stomping around amid giant crazy-straws. Jim Carrey voices Horton, Steven Carrell is the Mayor of Whoville with whom Horton makes first contact.

It's more than a little impressive to see how thoroughly Carrey, never thought of as an "under"-actor, dissapears into a vocal turn as Horton. This is still where the flights-of-fancy and pop culture references come in, sure, but he strikes the right balance in that it always seems to be "Horton doing a funny voice" as opposed to "the actor voicing Horton breaking character." Carrell, for his part, is working much of the same "responsibility-juggling parent" mojo he had going in "Evan Almighty" and "Dan in Real Life" to similarly likable effect.

Could be better, could've been a lot worse. The kids will like it, and thats the important thing.

FINAL RATING: 7/10