Of all the Dr. Seuss classics, Twentieth Century Fox made a suitable choice to adapt “Horton Hears a Who!” to the big screen. This 1954 tale not only creates a dual world of life-size and minuscule characters – i.e., the Whos of Whoville, who inhabit a city situated on a mote of dust as if it were a planet. The allegories of this tale are made accessible for young readers. As Horton, the happy-trotting elephant of the Jungle of Nool, discovers Whoville with a very keen ear, Theodor Geisel’s (Dr. Seuss) simple metaphysical tale inspires kids to wonder about the world around them, especially everything they cannot see. In the 1950s, as TV arrived to American homes, Geisel encouraged kids to go outside and let their minds illustrate for them. Sources as wide-ranging as the “Twilight Zone” and the 2001 Farrelly brothers animated film “Osmosis Jones” owe a debt to Geisel’s light-handed metaphor, which Chuck Jones made into a cartoon for television in 1970.
And the thematic richness doesn’t end there: when Horton spreads word of the newfound city and vows to protect it, others from the Jungle of Nool treat him like a dangerous rebel, one whose fantasies will ruin the minds of children. Horton becomes the target of something like a witch hunt – in a book appearing after the McCarthy hearings, let’s not forget – and must make the members of Whoville heard, or they’ll be destroyed. In a story about inspiring wonder, Horton’s persecutors symbolize influences out to kill youthful imagination.
This production delivers “Horton” as a richly animated tale. In the opening scenes, Horton (voiced by Seuss-vet Jim Carrey, earning his keep with vigor) appears lively enough that kids will forget that he’s an illustration. The real treat comes when Whoville appears onscreen, and classic Seuss is brought to the world of modern animation. The Whos have an endearing stiffness that the storybook characters suggest, when it would have been all too easy to embellish them into something alien to the source material. (Think of the recent big screen “Garfield,” who couldn’t be a distant cousin of the original – or even Jim Carrey’s Grinch, for that matter.) This Whoville is the bustling little city that we all read about, led by the lovable Mayor (Steve Carell, matching Carrey in vocal umph), with his dozens of children and an inclination for slipping up.
Even if Horton’s world can’t shine like Whoville, this movie’s visuals keeps things vivid, while digital animation is so often crisp, precise, and cold. For adults, the images of Whoville grow commonplace after awhile, similarly to how the visual inspiration in “The Simpsons” movie couldn’t last its feature length. And hearing Steve Carell’s frantic calls to save Whoville will hit a sour note for older viewers, as it reminds us of “Evan Almighty’s” attempts to deal with a flood in that overproduced wreck of a film. But all this won’t mean a thing to the kids, who at the screening I attended were dazzled by the interchange from Horton’s world to Whoville, as one strives to help the other. The young viewers cheered their way to the triumph, and I can imagine them looking out of car windows in wonder as they rode home from the theater.