Sunday, May 25, 2008


Horton Hears a Who is unimaginative and unfortunate, considering how important the work of Dr. Seuss has been to many generations of children. I can honestly say it is the best film adaptation of a Dr. Seuss book yet, but when compared to the likes of the dingy How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the abysmal Cat in the Hat, I’m pretty sure that is damning with faint praise. I have re-read several Seuss books with my five-year-old daughter, and a lot of them are absolutely wonderful, bending the language to tell funny, playful stories that pack sincere, powerful sentiments about the importance of every individual in this big, crazy world. The film version of Horton Hears a Who is satisfied to reach “playful” and not work to explore the power of those playful words.

If you remember the Seuss book, Horton is a giant elephant who swears he can hear a cry for help coming from a speck of dust that lands in his jungle home. Of course, that speck of dust is actually a whole other world of tiny people called “Who”s. Among them is the Mayor of Whoville (voiced by Steve Carell), who has nineteen children and is so overwhelmed by his bratty daughters and passive-aggressive wife (yikes) that he spends no time with his oldest son, who never speaks. Whoville is in danger and Horton swears to help its citizens, even though he has more potential to destroy a world he can’t even see. Standing in his way are his fellow jungle inhabitants, who think Horton is crazy. Their ringleader is Mother Kangaroo (Carol Burnett), who is yet another sadistic and controlling woman getting in the male hero’s way.

I was struck by how male-centered and female-phobic the film was, so I determined to go back and revisit the book to see if the film detoured from it. Upon my next visit to the bookstore, I discovered that the film actually stays as close to the book as it possibly can, with the exception that the film's lengthier dialogue allows the villainous females to keep spewing their nastiness, which is intended to be comic but only comes off as eerily and damagingly sexist.

Sociological examinations aside, Horton Hears a Who is nothing extraordinary or even mildly amusing. The CG animation is not particularly imaginative, the script fails to bring adequate life to the book’s story and characters, and much of the film’s additions feel more like filler than engaging and necessary. Even Steve Carell as the Mayor—a casting the filmmakers surely intended as a slam-dunk—is not as exciting as usual, a credit to his whiny and uninteresting character, who is supposed to be a sort of co-lead with Horton, but who lacks any real engaging traits other than his exasperation. The other voice actors (among them Isla Fisher, Will Arnett, and Seth Rogen) all bring their game but are essentially wasted. And the female representations are, again, abhorrent.

The only saving grace is the voice work of Jim Carrey, who is the perfect choice to play Horton and brings a natural good humor to the role. Yet even Carrey is forced to do the stuff we’ve seen a million times before—he does a lot of in-joke celebrity impersonations, he makes silly know, all the stuff that you throw at an audience when there’s no substance in the material.

Last year was really a landmark year for family films. As for 2008…I’m still waiting for one movie worth the admission price of an entire family.


serket said...

First of all I agree with you that this was the best of the three, but still not great. Personally, I just felt it was too childish. In the movie the mayor and his wife actually have 96 daughters and one son. I found your diatribe against men to be insulting. The smartest person in Whoville is a woman! While that is possible, men are more likely than women to have high intelligence.

I also did a post on the movie.

J McKiernan said...

Thanks for the comment, and thanks for the correction on the number of daughters. I wasn't sure...this is a catch-up review and I saw the film way back on its opening weekend. Couldn't remember the exact least I knew there was a nine in it.

Where is the "diatribe against men"? Pointing out that the film--and to a lesser extent, the original book--placed females in a negative light does not mean I am railing against men. Funny how you can't seem to realize that.

And "insulting"? Please...can we just get a little perspective? If we could, maybe we could see the difference between a discussion of the film's portrayals of female characters and a "diatribe" against men...and maybe we could actually have a civilized discussion as to why the Mayor has 96 nagging daughters and a passive-aggressive wife, and the film's central villain is a shrewish control freak.

Oh goodness, there I go again...diatribing against men???