Who gives a hoot?
Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino's Horton Hears a Who! (2008), the digitally animated adaptation of the Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) classic is easily the best to come out in recent years--which isn't exactly high praise. Ron Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (2000) had a green and fuzzy Jim Carrey caper charmlessly through a bloated, digitally enhanced movie; The Cat in the Hat (2003) had Mike Myers do it all over again, this time in a cat suit. Easily the best adaptation of the lot remains the 1966 version of Grinch with Boris Karloff unforgettably grumpy as the eponymous creature, and Chuck Jones injecting much-needed wit into what has always struck me as an otherwise saccharine Christmas perennial (but then I consider the entire season is saccharine). It helps that Jones' animated short came in at a lean thirty minutes; Seuss should really be taken in brief doses, if one has to take him at all.
I haven't seen Jones' 1970 version of Horton--presumably yet another twenty-six minutes of Jones improving on Geisel's work--but I'm guessing I'm not too far off when I say that that must look like a masterpiece of economy and felicity and grace compared to this production (never mind the difference in budget), which runs for about three times that length. Geisel reportedly approved of Jones' Grinch; he probably spun in his grave upon viewing the two big-budget productions, is rocking uneasily inside his coffin at the prospect of watching this one.
What's missing, you might ask? I'm not quite sure myself. The voice performances are pretty nifty--Jim Carrey's Horton does impersonations of Henry Kissinger and Al Gore all the while he's channeling William Shatner as Captain Kirk (which has always been Carrey's default dialogue delivery style). The slapstick is inventive enough when not doing the standard-issue ploy of imitating every amusement park ride this side of Disney World (American animators have this unshakeable belief, it seems to me (or is there some handbook hidden away somewhere?), that something fun and visually spectacular and even dangerously imitable must happen onscreen every five seconds, or the kiddies will start looking for the exit ("Mom! I want more soda! Mom, I want more candy!" "Mom! I need to go to the bathroom now!" "Mom! I went to the bathroom in my pants--don't need to go no more!"). I'm of two minds about this picture dropping some of the more outré humor found in Cat and Grinch (parents need to be entertained, after all, just upping the number of pratfalls won't do it) until I remember Carrey's (and Myers') green (and white) furred face (I can see them slowly merging into a single horrifying close-up), and I stop feeling uneasy--they know exactly where they can insert their attempts at adult humor, sideways.
The plot is nothing new: Horton is your classic loner rebel of an elephant who must struggle to have the rest of the Nool Jungle community believe that he really does hold the entire town of Whoville in a speck of dust in a flower held at the tip of his trunk (think Eliot protecting a microbe-sized E.T., or poor David struggling for the attention of disbelieving adults in the 1953 Invaders From Mars). Perhaps the one twist in the story is the difference in scale, Horton being an elephant and the Whoville community being microscopic--"A person's a person, no matter how small," people say during the course of the picture (a theme Richard Matheson and Jack Arnold has already dealt with, in subtler and more poignant manner, in the great 1957 classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (and I haven't even mentioned Jonathan Swift)). But Geisel's not satisfied with that the old chestnut; he has to replicate the storyline all over again in miniature, with the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell) trying to convince the citizens that they are in danger. If the filmmakers had pointed up the parallelism, maybe shown how the conversation on a macro scale affects matters on a micro scale--but no, that would be too sophisticated; we just get story on one end of the clover, basically the same story re-told at the other.
There are a few grace notes--there's blackly comic mileage made from the Whoville patriarchs desperately trying to put the best face on things, even when the whole world's falling apart around them (any reference to Al Gore and his campaign against global warming is always welcome), and no movie with the guts to play REO Speedwagon's I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore as a straight-faced climactic musical number can be utterly bad. Little Katie (voiced by Joey King) has such terrifyingly adorable eyes, and her one memorable line is so utterly demented ("In my world everyone is a pony, and they all eat rainbows, and poop butterflies") I'm disappointed she doesn’t snap and sink her teeth into someone's leg--but then I'm forgetting the nature of the sensibility that inspired all this.
It's not bad, actually, but it doesn't exactly rock one's world, does it? Partly it's the animation--I've yet to see a 100 percent digitally animated film evoke or exceed the beauty of handpainted animation (much prefer to see digital animation confined to one corner, made to behave itself, and perform only when called upon (see Studio Ghibli's use of the same in, say, Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl's Moving Castle, 2004)), or in Steve Box and Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit in "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Wallace and Gromit in 'The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,'" released the same year).
Partly it's the source material--never been a fan of Dr. Seuss' brand of nursery whimsy and safe-as-houses moralizing, and the idea of eating green eggs with ham only makes me queasy. Which makes one ask--when is Tim Burton going to do a film version of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are? If we're going to continue translating children's literature to the big screen, we might as well try adopting something with real teeth.
First published in Businessworld, 3.28.08