Yes! At last! This is how you make a good Jim Carrey comedy — by leaving his forced physical mania behind and including only his voice! “Horton Hears a Who!” succeeds where previous Dr. Seuss adaptations have fallen short, most notably by using animation — fluid, elastic, genuinely Seussian animation — to tell the story. Carrey’s shtick has always felt cartoonish anyway; now that he’s playing a cartoon, it actually fits.
How the idea of reinventing Seuss’ delightful drawings as cartoons failed to escape the makers of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “The Cat in the Hat,” I don’t know. Carrey’s performance as the Grinch was very good — I guess hiding him under a ton of makeup and costumery works as well as removing his physical presence altogether — but the movie itself was uninspired. And the less said about Mike Myers’ live-action desecration of the Cat in the Hat, the better.
No, Dr. Seuss’ stories should be cartoons, and they should be as pleasantly energetic and funny as this one, directed by Pixar veteran Jimmy Hayward and newcomer Steve Martino, from a script by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (a duo whose previous efforts, “Bubble Boy” and “College Road Trip,” would not have inspired much confidence). Here the good doctor’s gently whimsical, subtly insane vision is preserved, as is the story. Only the Whoville scenes have been beefed up (there was almost no backstory in the original) — and even there, the rhyming narration, read by newsman Charles Osgood, is written in such a convincingly imitative style that I had to double-check that it wasn’t actually from the book.
Carrey is the voice of Horton, the childlike elephant who hears a tiny cry for help come from a speck of dust floating by one day in the jungle. Horton is imaginative and playful, and not a little naive (Carrey’s tapping into his inner Canadian, I think) as he tries to convince everyone else in the jungle that he’s not imagining things. There really are tiny people on this speck, and it really does need protecting!
On the speck itself, Steve Carell provides the voice of the Mayor, a befuddled family man rendered useless by a powerful city council that is staunchly opposed to bad news. When the Mayor tries to warn his people that their world is spinning out of control and may soon be destroyed, he is ignored or derided. When he tries to convince them that a giant invisible elephant that he’s been talking to is trying to save them, he is laughed off as a false prophet.
Seuss’ original didn’t indicate that the Mayor had any trouble convincing his fellow Whos of Horton’s existence, but the revision fits Seuss’ style. The story already lends itself to numerous interpretations — the “a person’s a person no matter how small” theme has already been co-opted by the anti-abortion crowd — so why not add another dimension? Part of what makes “Horton” timeless is that it can be read either as a parable with a variety of possible messages, or as nothing more than a fun story.
Back in Horton’s world, his chief opponent is the Kangaroo, a judgmental snob who “pouch-schools” her son and single-handedly enforces the jungle community’s anti-imagination standards. (“If you can’t see, hear, or feel something, it doesn’t exist!” she says, the exact opposite of what you’d expect a right-wing home-schooler to believe.) Voiced by Carol Burnett — Carol Burnett, ladies and gentlemen! — the Kangaroo is a marvelously imperious antagonist, and she’s joined in the story’s unforced merriment by a mean Russian buzzard (Will Arnett), a bunch of banana-crazed monkeys, and several other bizarre creatures.
The addition of Horton’s mouse pal, Morton (Seth Rogen), is unnecessary, and the inclusion of an REO Speedwagon musical number, while funny, is strangely out-of-place. Yet other changes, like the Mayor’s devoted wife (Amy Poehler) and 96 daughters, blend as seamlessly with the Seussian worldview as if they’d been there from the start. Surely Dr. Seuss himself would approve of this lightheartedly wacky interpretation of his work. Let’s hope other filmmakers use this as an example and get future adaptations right, too.
A- (1 hr., 25 min.; )