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Dr. Seuss’s stories are simple, and their length is not long. His stories are short, yet their message is strong. They’re also spectacularly unsuited for any Hollywood adaptation, as unsuited as I am for Dr. Seuss rhyming and alliteration. They’ve tried it before with live action, and with Horton at least they’ve finally learned that lesson and left the prosthetics abandoned. To make a Seuss story work as a film you’ve got to stuff it with filler, and there’s plenty of that to be found in this new animated attempt at filming his masterful work. It’s a success as a movie, but it still isn’t quite perfect as a Seuss adaptation.
The fact that the movie is freed from the bounds of human actors and props helps though, and Horton Hears a Who! is nearly as visually creative and fun as the Seuss drawings it’s based on. It’s the story that occasionally misses, since they’re building a 90 minute film out of a book that’s really only a few pages. The core of Seuss’s world is there though. This is still the story of an elephant named Horton who discovers a spec. On the spec is a town called Whoville, and its mayor can hear Horton when he talks. Horton vows to protect the tiny spec and its inhabitants, and finds himself harangued and ostracized by the other animals of his jungle who can’t hear the Whos’ voices and so insist he’s a dangerous kook.
Jim Carrey, who achieved dubious success doing a live action version of The Grinch a few years ago, voices Horton. It’s a strange choice really, I thought the reason we liked Jim was for his facial contortions, not his vocal veracity. But he’s capable as Horton, sort of sappy and silly, which plays into the film’s mostly cartoony vibe. Funny is the name of the game here, and Horton Hears a Who! sometimes pushes the moral center of Seuss’s story to the background in favor of being wacky. At least though, it really is funny. The visual gags are entertaining and Steve Carell, as the voice of The Mayor of Whoville is both touching and hilarious. That balances out a lot of the unnecessary pop culture references, MySpace jokes, and Jim Carrey riffing which in a lesser film, might have sent the whole thing straight to the bottom.
In the end, they hang on to enough of Seuss’s smart, sweet message about the importance of life, tolerance, and standing up for what you believe in to leave the movie something substantive to wrap all that silliness around. Horton Hears a Who is fun and enthusiastic, but also sweet and affecting in all the right moments. If you can forgive it for a momentary lapse in the last thirty seconds which turns the whole thing into a bizarre, rock opera musical number, you’ll find a lot to like in Horton Hears a Who!. Dr. Seuss will always be better in book form, but Hollywood has found a way to turn his work into a movie without falling flat.