'Horton's' Joyful Noise

The computer-animated
The computer-animated "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" plays it straight and sweet, yet the understated political commentary comes through loud and clear. (Twentieth Century Fox Via Associated Press)
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By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008

As sacred cows go, Dr. Seuss is one of America's most beloved Holsteins.

So when we sit down to watch "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!," a computer-animated adaptation of the classic 1954 children's book, expectations are bound to be high. Unreasonable even. We want to relive the euphoric feeling that made the original so special -- the inventive rhymes and vocabulary, the underlying messages and the wonderfully expressive illustrations of its characters, including Horton the elephant and the teeny residents of Who-ville.

How, then, does a movie address our reverence in a medium that worships the popcorn-popping id over the contemplative superego? How does it break through the intimidation and get on with the fun?

"Horton," the movie, honors the spirit of the original. It has found the right balance between veneration of the text and its charter to entertain. It gives the audience just enough patter to evoke that Seussian universe, yet frees itself to exult in the spaces between the words. And if "Horton" has less poetry than a Seuss purist would desire, its atmosphere of playful goodwill is just right.

Made by the producers of "Ice Age," the "Horton" movie gives us that same, 3D-like animation and sense of children's epic. Horton (voice of Jim Carrey) finds himself traversing a precarious footbridge at one point and scaling a snowy mountain at another. Both echo the arduous trek of those prehistoric characters in the "Ice Age." But the message of "Horton" remains true to the book. It's about the special friendship between the pachyderm and the teeny mayor of Who-ville (voice of Steve Carell), whose practically inaudible words he hears one day, from a speck of dust atop a pink clover.

Carrey and Carell understand their subtle duties perfectly. Instead of manic Robin Williams humor laced with savvy asides for older viewers, Carrey and Carell play it straight and sweet. And doing so, they fulfill the Zen of Theodor "Ted" Seuss Geisel, and it becomes something deeper.

As a political cartoonist during World War II, Geisel learned how to use wit to make a point. But in his children's books, he was subtler. Between their funny lines, "The Lorax" and "The Sneetches" addressed abuse of the environment and anti-Semitism, respectively. "Horton Hears a Who!" was a quiet statement against political isolationism and, in the McCarthy era in which it was written, it seemed to be a plea for political tolerance. (Geisel cried foul, however, when the anti-abortion movement appropriated and politicized the central phrase from "Horton" -- "A person's a person no matter how small.")

The movie replays that understated commentary. It's clear enough if you care to see it. Realizing he has discovered a world in miniature, Horton has a tough time convincing his community's mean, controlling Sour Kangaroo (Carol Burnett) that these unseen beings exist, let alone that they need protection from bigger beings. If you can't see it, hear it or feel it, argues this arch little fascista, it doesn't exist. But the movie's most appealing idea, of course, is that we should listen to the smallest, most underrepresented among us. Adults watching the film may think of various political groups. Maybe they'll remember the good old snail darter. The children will think "Oh, they're talking about me."

And they'll all be right. And by that standard, "Horton" reaches us as powerfully as the plaintive little voice that -- one wonderfully inventive Dr. Seuss-like day -- catches Horton's enormous and sensitive ear.

Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! (84 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G and contains nothing objectionable except mild profanity.

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