Horton Hears a Who
Anyone can tell you that the key advantage to working in animation is that you are only limited by your own imagination. There's a freedom that live action simply cannot achieve. That's most likely the simplest reason that the previous big budget live action attempts at adapting Dr. Seuss (2000's mediocre The Grinch, and 2003's obnoxious Cat in the Hat) fell so short. There's just no way that the limits of live action could match the imagination of the beloved writer. Horton Hears a Who is animated, and the difference to the past attempts is like night and day. This is a lively, joyous, and frequently hilarious film that not only easily ranks as the best feature length attempt to bring the world of Seuss to the screen, but it's also probably the most enjoyable computer animated film to hit screens since Ratatouille.
The folks at Blue Sky animation (the Ice Age films and Robots), along with first-time directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, make a lot of right moves, almost right off the bat. The film's look is slick and modern, which allows for some beautifully animated sequences and an overall lush and vibrant tone that brings the story's colorful locales to life. Fortunately, the look is not so modern as to drown out the appeal of the characters. The character designs are mostly faithful to the original drawings to the storybook, and there are even a couple hand-drawn sequences thrown in that look like the illustrations from the book come to life. This is the first time watching a movie based on one of Seuss' stories that I actually felt like I was watching a proper recreation of the worlds he used to create. From the bizarre animals that inhabit Horton's jungle home (some that resemble actual animals, and many that seem to come strictly from the imagination), to the almost surrealistic design of the world of the Whos, that at times seems to be heavily inspired by the paintings of M.C. Escher, this is a wonderful film to look at. Fortunately for the audience, it's a wonderful film to listen to as well, as it manages to perfectly capture the warm-hearted spirit of the original story.
For the few of you who don't know, the story centers on a care-free elephant named Horton (voice by Jim Carrey), who makes his home in the jungle of Nool, and seems content to pass his days frolicking in the local water hole and imparting wisdom to his little animal friends. Horton's world is turned upside down when a tiny speck happens to float by, and he hears a tiny voice from within calling for help. His large ears enable Horton to hear the voice, as none of the other animals can hear it, and he eventually learns that on this seemingly-insignificant speck is an entire race of microscopic creatures called Whos that have built an entire society upon it. The Whos have absolutely no idea that there is another world beyond their own, nor do they realize the danger their society is in now that the speck that carries their world has been knocked out of place. The absent-minded Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell) is the first to discover Horton's existence, and realize the situation at hand. With the world of the Whos hanging in the balance, Horton must find a safe place to place the flower that the speck now sits upon, and convince the other animals of the jungle that there is life within the tiny speck. The narrow-minded and orderly Kangaroo (Carol Burnett) who rules over the animals, however, refuses to believe Horton's claims of there being other microscopic worlds, and will go to any means to destroy the "worthless" speck.
Horton Hears a Who is that rare family film that works on different levels for adults and children. Children will love the bright and vibrant animation, cute characters, and charming story with a good message that can be useful for both kids and adults. The movie is sweet and likable without being sappy, or trying hard to bring emotion. It is a simple tale that does not drown itself in needless subplots, like some past attempts to bring Seuss to the screen did, nor does it concern itself with being "hip" and "cool" for today's crowds. Yes, there are a couple pop culture references that have snuck in (there's a nod to Apocalypse Now, and a gag built around Myspace), but for the most part, the screenplay by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (who surprisingly contributed to the screenplay to last week's awful College Road Trip) keeps its heart in the right place, and the sense of humor sweet and not overbearing. The jokes don't fly fast and furious in this movie, but when they do, they often hit hard. There are some genuine laughs throughout, and although the story may seem somewhat padded to fill feature length, it never bothered me. The movie focuses on the charm of the characters to carry the movie, and it's more than enough to carry the light material.
A lot of this charm comes from the strong voice cast, which has gathered some of the strongest comedic talents working today. Aside from the previously mentioned Carrey, Carell, and Burnett, the film's cast also sports Seth Rogen (Superbad) as a little mouse that acts as Horton's closest friend, Saturday Night Live's Amy Poehler, who plays the wife of the Mayor of Whoville, who is desperately trying to understand her husband's talk of giant elephants and other worlds, and Will Arnett (Semi-Pro) who gets a lot of laughs as a vulture that the Kangaroo hires to destroy the speck. Everyone brings the right amount of energy to their performances, and creates the right mood. I was especially happy to see that Jim Carrey is able to reign in his trademark manic humor and mugging in his portrayal of Horton, and basically give us a likable everyman (every-elephant?) that we can root for. Steve Carell is also a stand out as the Mayor of the Whos that, despite his position of power, doesn't get a lot of respect from the ruling council, and mainly is just trying his best to do what is right for his people and for his large family that includes 96 daughters and one son.
Horton Hears a Who is one of the few films that I think can be labeled as delightful. It's breezy, it's very funny, and its genuinely heartfelt without having to try too hard. I can only hope that families are smart enough to ignore the stupid and crass College Road Trip, and know that this is the one to see. This movie marks a big step up for Blue Sky Studios, which has often been a distant third behind giants like Pixar and Dreamworks. While I have found much to like about their past offerings, something always seemed to be missing. Horton is their best effort yet, and a good sign of things to come.
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