"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Horton Hears a Who: Sweet and Surreal Seuss

Turning a classic children's story into a mass-market, big-screen movie is always a risky proposition. So many never live up to the promise of the original — or, worse, change it into something unrecognizable. But luckily, Horton Hears a Who is on the other end of that spectrum. 20th Century Fox's animated adaptation balances Seuss's sweet story with stunning visuals, deftly sharing its message ("a person's a person, no matter how small") with only brief interludes of cheesiness.

In case you were more of a One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish fan, here's the story of Horton in a nutshell: In a magical jungle, there lives an elephant named Horton, who one day spots a little speck on a flower. Thanks to his big ears, he can hear the noises coming from the speck and finds a way to communicate with the Whos of Whoville, who have lived their entire lives unaware that their universe was nothing more than a precarious resting spot on a flower somewhere. Horton wants to get the Whos to a safe place, but the jungle's bossy kangaroo doesn't believe Horton (and certainly doesn't want all the other jungle creatures imagining there are worlds on their flowers, too) and tries to thwart his mission. Meanwhile, the Mayor of Whoville — the only person who can communicate with Horton — has some doubters of his own who want to make a fool of him for suggesting their universe is merely a speck. Will the two worlds ever find common ground? Well, it's Dr. Seuss, so I suppose it's no spoiler that the answer is yes — but the way it plays out on film is fun to watch.

On a visual level, the movie is stunning — not because it's so realistic (that's more Pixar's bag) but exactly because it's so surreal. The landscapes and loopy line drawings look like Seuss brought to life; the saturated colors tell a whole story in themselves, from the leafy greens of Horton's jungle to the spooky grays of the villains' lair. The houses of Whoville are lopsided and loopy, perfect for a land that's just a little off-kilter.

One of the best decisions, in terms of keeping the story true to Seuss's spirit, was to have a narrator (Charles Osgood, better known for his news-anchor job) speak in Seuss's traditional, sing-song-y rhymes. Anytime it seemed like the movie was getting too far from the original story, Osgood's calming voice was there to ground it. Other voices are also highlights: Jim Carrey faded so completely into Horton that I never really connected the actor with the elephant. Steve Carell, on the other hand, simply is the Mayor of Whoville; that character is right in his bumbling, inept wheelhouse. My favorite, surprisingly, was Seth Rogen as Horton's dopey sidekick, Morton; apparently, Rogen is good at playing the buddy in any form.

Horton is clearly shooting to appeal to the whole family, and for the most part, it succeeds: There are enough clever details to keep adults entertained, while the lumbering goofiness of Horton himself kept the kids at my screening riveted. Unfortunately, what doesn't work are the parts of the movie aimed at the pre-teen crowd. Granted, I'm not in that demographic, but I was surprised at how flat those jokes — mostly gags along the lines of "Whoville mayor gets fishbowl stuck on crotch" — fell. And I'm not sure why the movie includes a montage of characters singing "Can't Fight This Feeling." It felt unnecessary, a cheap dig for a last laugh.

But does any of that really matter? In the end, Horton tells a sweet story with fine acting and a quirky visual style that perfectly fits its source, and that's all I ask from a movie like this.

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