March 24, 2008

Dr. Seuss Saves Us From Movie Hell

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♪Though you might hope and wish for good luck, movies before April do generally suck. Your local theater’s selections will just induce gags, unless you enjoy watching Martin Lawrence in drag. But Dr. Seuss gives reprieve from the season’s dismal lows. Horton Hears a Who! is pretty decent fo’ sho’.♪

So my verses don’t exactly rival those of Dr. Seuss, but the sentiment I’m trying to convey is legitimate nonetheless. The months from January through March are traditionally a dumping ground for studios trying to quickly and quietly get rid of projects they probably just realized they should never have made in the first place (“OK! 10,000 B.C. — it’s Spartacus meets Braveheart. But in Ancient Egypt. And with mastadons. Awesome, I think we nailed this one.”).

This time of the year is pretty bleak for cinephiles, but every once in a while you’ll find a diamond in the rough (pardon the cliché). Sometimes a movie will come along during this dark and dreary time of the year that surprises critics and audiences alike. It’s rare, but it does happen.

Is Horton Hears a Who! that movie? Well, not entirely, but its definitely a step in the right direction. Adapted from the classic Dr. Seuss story of the same name, the computer-animated feature follows two very different heroes that fly in the face of conventional wisdom, and of everyone they know, in the hopes of doing a little bit of good — or maybe even alot (it’s all pretty relative, you’ll come to see).

Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey) is big ol’ elephant that lives in the Jungle of Nool. He spends his days swimming in streams and teaching the yung’uns about all the different animals that live amongst them. Most of the jungle dwellers (a hodgepodge of Seuss-ian creature creations) love Horton — the parents appreciate that he’s teaching the children and the kids themselves think he’s a gas. One bossy Kangaroo however (voiced by Carol Burnett), conjuring up images of all the worst crusading Soccer moms, thinks that Horton is a simple buffoon who should learn to act like a sensible adult.

When Horton is lazily swimming around one day, he seems to hear (thanks to his large elephant ears) a tiny voice coming from a tiny speck that slowly drifts by. It turns out that inside that speck is a microscopic city full of people called Whos. Living in the fantastical town of Whoville, the Whos are blissfully ignorant of the fact that they are but specks on a speck in a much larger world. The Mayor of Whoville (voiced by Steve Carell) hears Horton, and manages to communicate with the elephant. Though they insist to their respective peoples that there are indeed other worlds out their (either big or small), no one seems to believe them.

The two are left with no choice but to collaborate on a grand mission to save Whoville from the oh-so-sensible Kangaroo, who thinks all the talk of tiny people and tiny cities on a tiny speck is a whole lot of worthless hullabaloo. She aims to destroy the speck, first by enlisting the help of a vulture-cum-Russian-hitman (Will Arnett) and later by turning the entire Jungle of Nool against the heroic elephant.

Horton is a sweet story with some wonderful flourishes and a ton of great characters. Writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul manage to update the classic tale without butchering it like previous live-action Seuss adaptations How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat and the Hat did. The only blemish on the movie’s attempt to inject modern day culture into the 1950s original story is the Mayor’s son and reluctant heir JoJo (the only boy out of 96 offspring) who is totally too emo to handle (“Life is, like, so bleak,” he would probably say if he ever betrayed his silent veneer to speak). His subplot is pretty extraneous when compared to the rest of the story.

The film’s greatest strength is its wonderful animation. These Whos are (presumably) one at the same as those from another Dr. Seuss staple, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and the appearance of their city supports such a notion. Beautifully rendered by the film’s animators, Whoville is great fun to look at and more a faithful depiction of Dr. Seuss illustrations than anyone has seen in years.

On a side note: The notion that the movie is a pro-life fable — as asserted by right wing activists who point to Horton’s declaration that “a person’s a person, no matter how small” — is a little bit ridiculous. Attempts to politicize the movie are just plain silly, because, thematically, Horton Hears a Who! is broadly applicable. Standing up against conventional wisdom in the name of what you know to be right is an idea that dates back to Socrates and Galileo, and that expansive principle — not a narrowly focused political position — forms the thematic backbone of the film.

Thanks to some good writing and a lot of great animation, Horton Hears a Who! is a break from the normally abominable pre-summer film landscape. Although the ending is a little too saccharine, the movie, in general, delivers the goods — it’s a night at the movies that kids and adults can both equally enjoy.