Who isn't a fan of Dr. Seuss? I come to this Hollywood production as one who sees most Seuss books as already perfect--not something to mess with. For example, I found myself wishing this movie had opened May 15, since that is the date in the opening sentence of the book. Still, this first digital animation of Seuss pleases in many ways, and my realistic hope is that it will get more of his books into the laps of parents and children across the country and the world.
The movie opens with an exquisitely done scene of the Who speck-world being dislodged from its place in a flower to drift down through the air over increasingly dangerous terrain. We then meet Horton having a bathe in his jungle pool. We quickly learn that he has a silly side, but someone, perhaps Jim Carey himself, reins this in enough that it generally does not detract from the more foundational earnest, innocent faithfulness that sets him apart from the rest of the community. It seems that Horton is a teacher of sorts and one gathers that it was in a disagreement with his way of doing this that Ms. Kangaroo found her first ax to grind with him. In an unnecessary slam on home-schooling, she comments that he is the reason her joey is "pouch-schooled." The speck drifts by, he hears a call for help, realizes the speck must be inhabited, then catches it before it's drowned. He then places it on a clover so soft, fluffy, pink and perfect that I'm sure Ted himself would have smiled with joy at the sight of it. After sharing what he's heard and done, he is labeled a fool, but commits himself to carrying the clover and it's speck to Mt. Nool, the highest point in the land. The rest of the movie follows the book fairly closely, though there are of course a number of plot expansions and a couple of subtle but important, and unfortunate, departures from the plot line of the book.
Ms. Kangaroo contemplates giving up her joey to a wonderfully creepy eagle named Vlad Vladikoff as the price of a hit on Horton's clover, but then convices him to do it for free by saying she is also considering the Wickersham brother apes for the job. He snatches Horton's tiny world of friends and carries it to the "great patch of clover, a hundred miles wide," but Horton comes to the rescue and finds them again after an exhausting all day search. One of the best in the movie, this scene brought back memories of how strongly these pages had affected me in childhood.
Meanwhile, down on the speck, the Mayor of the town struggles to get the city council, and even his wife, to believe him as he talks of the "giant elephant in the sky" who is trying to save them. Everyone wants to ignore the signs of danger and let the centennial celebration go on. In a plot expansion that seems to be a clumsy attempt to foil pro-lifers who would use this story as a metaphor for their cause, the Mayor has 96 daughters and one son, and not enough time for any of them. From the looks of things, he wouldn't have time for even two. His son is a reticent little mystery named Jojo, dressed in black, with an adolescent style. Those who know the book well remember that this is the name of the "twerp" whose "Yopp!" saves the world. Gripes aside, this little world is so excellently Seuss-like, and the Who's, the staircases, the contraptions and buildings so true to the spirit of his art-work that it becomes as real as the jungle.
The story reaches a climax as Horton is captured with his recovered clover and speck, and all of Who-ville begins trying to make themselves known with shouts of "We are here, We are here.." The audience can guess that Jojo indeed will be a hero as the art of contraptions reaches new heights when his own creations are revealed to accompany the Who's chorus.
My biggest gripe with this story is regarding his counterpart in the jungle--the little joey. One of the most memorable lines in the book is 'And the young kangaroo in her pouch said, "Me, too!"' Though everyone, especially in America, enjoys the dream of children transcending their parents' troublesome ways, the truth is that our children tend to behave like us, for better or for worse. I think the book manages this issue better and is more helpful for the moral developement of children. Jojo shouts "Yopp!" to save the day at the firm directive and challenge of the mayor. Not quite the same in the movie! In the book, the mother kangaroo finally hears the Who's, and then the young kangaroo does, too. The movie version, with the joey rising up against his mother's stubborn vendetta to save the day, is less helpful. Instead of a message of "that mother is being mean, but she changes her ways, and I can, too,' it becomes 'my mother is being mean, and I must do something about it."
The toothy eagle is scary, but the scariest scene is of Horton crossing a rickety bridge. Either could cause nightmares and more sensitive youngsters may need support to hide their eyes. The numbskull who stuck the dreadful dentist scene in here should be named so that pediatric dentists can write to him or her personally! Who-ville's mayor needs a root canal, the dentist comes at him with an enormous needle, dripping with something, then misses and jabs him in the arm (when Horton jiggles their world). I'm glad not to have had a three year old with me to see the movie.
There is quite a lot of slapstick, some name-calling, little to no potty humor and certainly nothing sexualized. The plot is a bit tricky at times, but generally should be quite accessible for even young children. There is a painfully dumb presentation of REO Speedwagon's "I Can't Fight this Feeling" at the end, but it's not too hard to get over!
This terrific story, if not superbly rendered here, is beautiful on the big screen and worth seeing before it leaves the theaters.
Reviewed by Norman Hale, M.D., email@example.com.