Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!

21 05 2010

Ted Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) was not afraid of including social commentary in his children’s books. Besides being a children’s author, he was also a political cartoonist and writer for the military during World War II, with his Private Snafu shorts being particularly illuminating.

So it’s refreshing to (finally) see a modern Seuss adaptation that at least tries to adhere to the spirit of his work. Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! (2008) is the fourth feature from Blue Sky Studios, who also produced Robots (2005) and the three Ice Age movies (2002, 2006 and 2009). Blue Sky are like the Chuck Jones to Pixar’s Walt Disney, and so while they don’t produce serious, studied entertainment in the Pixar vein, they also don’t resort to the mindless hipster grab-bag approach of DreamWorks Animation; instead, Blue Sky offer a manic charm all their own.

It’s only fitting, then, that Blue Sky Studios adapt one of Seuss’ more memorable children’s books, following in the footsteps of Chuck Jones’ own successful adaptations. This is not a nightmare-fuelled acid trip a la Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000) (and the less said about Mike Myers as The Cat in the Hat (2003) the better); rather, Blue Sky’s Horton is colourful and whimsical, giving spectators an amazing 3D realisation of Seuss’ illustrations that is as faithful as can be. And while pop-culture elements are a little overdone at times, this is still miles ahead of the horrors that DreamWorks might have visited upon the source.

The story involves Horton (Jim Carrey), an elephant who one day discovers an entire world on a speck of dust. The world itself is Who-ville, led by its mayor (Steve Carell), and the film largely concerns a dialogue between Horton and the mayor, as well as the attempts by each to convince others of this larger truth. In particular, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the philosophy of an especially close-minded Kangaroo (Carol Burnett).

Horton’s struggles seem surprisingly similar to the debate regarding how Darwinian natural selection and Creationism should be taught in schools. Horton is a teacher to the younger animals, and Kangaroo (who “pouch-schools” her children) refuses to accept anything other than her own dogmatic worldview. But the message is general enough that, in fact, both sides can see themselves as Horton and the opposition as Kangaroo.

Notably, Geisel once threatened legal action against a pro-life organisation who used the line that “A person’s a person, no matter how small” as a rallying cry against abortion—Horton‘s theme is broader than the ideologies of any political groups who might wish to stake a claim.

In truth, Horton Hears a Who! is about everyone’s need to be heard. Our enemies are those who prefer partisanship to reasoned debate, and perhaps one day we’ll all be able to engage in honest dialogue rather than petty sniping. Until then, at least there are people trying to make films that actually have something to say, yet can be fun for all ages, too.

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