Is everyone happy now? I caved. I watched Horton Hears a Who. The one Dr Seuss movie I was yet to see. I bought it from Kmart for $9, I sat down with an open mind and pressed play.
Is it good? No. Is it bad? Well…..it’s certainly not horrible. It’s probably the least awful of the Seuss adaptations. But that doesn’t make it a good movie.
Dr Seuss’ work has not been treated kindly by the film industry, with a total of 4 feature length movies based incredibly loosely on his works. The movies began with The Grinch in 2000, The Cat in the Hat infamously portrayed by Mike Myers in 2003, 2008’s Horton Hears a Who and most recently, The Lorax in 2012. Why do these movies, for the most part, fail so spectacularly in bringing the world of Seuss to life?
As a die-hard Seussian, I’m determined to find out. This is my Seuss on Screen series, starting with Horton Hears a Who.
First, let’s look at the source material. Published in 1954, Horton Hears a Who was actually the second appearance of the titular character, having already starred in 1940’s Horton Hatches the Egg. Horton Hears a Who follows Horton the elephant as he hears the tiny planet of Whoville on a speck of dust. Horton is the only animal in the Jungle of Nool able to hear the Whos. Wishing to protect this tiny population, Horton places the dust speck on a clover, despite the Sour Kangaroo and the Jungle of Nool believing Horton to be out of his mind. Horton stands by his mantra “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” and eventually the Whos are able to prove their existence before being destroyed.
After the success of Horton Hatches the Egg, the sequel came about when Seuss visited Japan post WWII. Having drawn multitudes of political cartoons during the war, Seuss was quite anti-Japanese, but visiting Hiroshima changed his mind dramatically, and he wrote the book as an allegory to how the Japanese were treated in the post-war years. It was even dedicated to a Japanese friend.
It’s a common misconception that the story is a comment on abortion, and several pro-life groups have used the famous line “a person’s a person no matter how small” much to Seuss’ anger. If there’s one thing he hated, it was people twisting his words and stories for their own ends. I shudder to think what he’d do if he saw some of these films…..
The themes of Horton Hears a Who are pretty straightforward. It’s a simple message of looking out for the little guy and opening your mind to believing in something you can’t always see. Easy enough. There’s a fair bit of drama, with the Wickersham brothers and Vlad Vlad-i-koff forcing Horton to search for the clover in a giant field of identical flowers, then the Sour Kangaroo trying to boil the speck in a vat of beezlenut oil. The villains get their redemption, and they’re still not evil. You can definitely see their point of view. The Whos are a creative concept, they’re relateable as the underdogs, and Horton teaches kids to stand by their convictions even if no-one else supports you.
Making a movie out of this doesn’t seem necessary, but there’s still potential in it to be a fun little family film. Sadly, what we got doesn’t meet the mark in all areas.
A major issue I have with the film is the message is totally glanced over. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still there, and that’s great, but it’s constantly shoved aside to make the kids laugh. And nowhere is this more obvious than the characterisation of Horton himself.
In the books, Horton is, at the core, a simple elephant of principle. He’s gentle, kind, loyal and a good role model. He’s engaging and admirable, and both his stories form the basis for the musical Seussical. He is the only one who can hear the Whos, and even at first he’s not sure he did. But on the off chance that there is someone, he does a noble thing and protects the dust speck. Everyone says he’s insane, but he keeps with the clover. In Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton agrees to sit on Mayzie’s egg for a day, but she doesn’t come back. He sticks with the egg for 51 lonely weeks, is laughed at, and gets sold to a circus. But he doesn’t give up, constantly saying “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent,” What wonderful messages to teach kids, and adults too!
In the film, Horton is voiced by Jim Carrey. And heavens alive, is he miscast. I’ve loved Jim Carrey in other projects, but he’s just not right for Horton, or at least, the correct character of Horton. In the film, Horton is made into something of a hyperactive eccentric, and it’s incredibly distracting. I have no problem with the writers giving Horton a bit of a quirky edge to make him more interesting, or give the jungle creatures a reason to mistrust him, but this is downright silly. I imagine they’re trying to do what Carrey did with the Grinch, which worked ok. The Grinch is a grouchy social recluse, so it makes sense that he would be strange. Whereas Horton isn’t meant to be crazy and weird, he’s just a normal elephant. If that makes sense. I mean, I don’t know many elephants personally so I can’t……but I’m sure most elephants are…..
THE POINT IS that making Horton a nutjob is going against what he is. And they’ve done exactly the same thing with the Mayor of Whoville. Steve Carrell, who actually does a pretty good job, is also an knucklehead mcspazatron. Sure, he has a few moments of substance when he isn’t spouting tell-don’t-show dialogue, but he’s clumsy, odd and constantly battling with the evil government who just doesn’t want to believe him about Horton.
Quite honestly, the idea that the Who’s also are skeptical about being a dust speck is a pretty clever idea. It’s what Dr Seuss added to the animated Chuck Jones special back in 1970. But did we really need the big bad establishment? Isn’t a skeptical population enough? Apparently not.
I think of all the voice acting and characters, the best choice by far was Carol Burnett as the Sour Kangaroo. She’s easily the most faithful to the book. The other characters are far too wacky to be relateable, and because they’re constantly played for cheap laughs, the seriousness of the story is severely watered down.
And the pacing. Oh, the pacing.
To the film’s credit, visually, the book comes to life. Animation is a much more suitable medium for Dr Seuss’ work than live action, and they take full advantage of it. The film looks great, especially the world created for Whoville. However, I fear that this made the filmmakers panic, and worried about how to best engage the children for eighty minutes. So do they really explore the idea of opening your eyes to what isn’t obvious? No. Ok, do they go into depth on the world of Whoville and make us really connect with these tiny people so we care about them? No. Do we see Horton struggle with being shunned? Nope. We get a bunch of zany antics and cheesy slapstick from beginning to end. I’m serious. I couldn’t count one quiet moment in the film. Animation may give you more freedom to make bold choices, but it isn’t a license to give us all seizures. Horton is crazy. The Mayor is crazy. The Whos are all crazy. The Jungle of Nool is crazy. It’s constant movement, noise, and action for the sake of having things flying by on screen. And the anime references? Why? I just straight up don’t get the purpose of that sequence. It made no sense and the film grounded to a halt! And you know why the movie is loud and borderline obnoxious?
Because the movie is afraid that if they pause for a microsecond the kids will fall asleep.
There’s a widespread belief that children’s entertainment needs to be constantly loud and energetic because kids have short attention spans. And they do, but this approach is completely counterproductive. This is such a dumb concept I don’t even know where to begin saying what’s wrong with it. It’s not only okay to have quiet moments in children’s entertainment, it’s actually important. Children need it to teach them patience and how to appreciate atmosphere. Look at the scene in Mary Poppins where Mr Banks walks down the streets of London. No dialogue, no singing, just some incredible shots of the city and a beautiful instrumental underscore of Feed the Birds. It’s one of the most heavy and adult scenes in a family picture, and it’s one of the most beloved movies of all time.
There was a glimmer of hope at the very end when the Sour Kangaroo realises what she’s done and Horton very graciously forgives her. Finally, it appears we can have a moment! No words necessary, all done through visuals and music and…..nope, Vlad Vlad-i-koff has to loudly point out that this is a touching moment and starts crying in the most obnoxious fashion imaginable. That’s the entire summation of where Horton Hears a Who falls flat as a picture. It is afraid of it’s own message. It shoves it to the side so the kids can keep giggling at the slapstick. The comedy is spoon fed to the audience. There’s a few clever moments, but for the most part I could predict the punchline to almost every joke. The characters are all in the same vein so there’s no variety. The tone is constantly loud and bizarre which sucks out the weight of the message. They’re afraid to see the target audience as thinking human beings who deserve to be treated as such.
It’s definitely not a terrible movie and I don’t think I’d encourage people to boycott the film. It’s relatively harmless. I disagree with the overall tone, but it probably is the closest to Seuss’ world being realised on film as we’re likely to get. But it’s worth remembering what Dr Seuss’ mindset was about children:
“I write for myself. Children are just as smart as you are. The main difference is they don’t know so many words. If your story is simple, you can tell it just as if you’re telling it to adults,”
Horton may have been a critical and financial success, but as for me, I will always revere the book on my shelf.
Next week: The Grinch!