screenplay by Ken Daurio & Cinco Paul, based on the book by Dr. Seuss
directed by Jimmy Hayward & Steve Martino
by Walter Chaw Surprised as anyone to be saying it, but Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! is actually pretty good. It's a climate-change kind of flick, as you might imagine, or at least that's the prism du jour through which one must view a world afflicted by weird weather patterns on the brink of complete annihilation. Likewise, when the residents of microbial Whoville are enlisted to participate in their own salvation (despite a feckless, flat-earther ruling party urging them to fiddle while Rome melts), it points a rather stern, Seussian finger at the fringe holdouts who still feel that evolution and global warming are theories in dispute. (I personally like the argument that because things are getting colder, it proves that global warming isn't happening--which is, let's face it, almost as ignorant as the idea that someone buried dinosaur bones to fool us into thinking there was a world before Man.) Not so much in dispute is this idea that films--especially genre films like this--are often the first indicators in popular culture of the things that infect us, that make us worried for ourselves and for our children. Heartening to find entertainment directed at kids that applies the cautionary warning of "The Emperor's New Clothes" to our heritage of instantly Oprah-fying atrocity--and that provides a CGI context for Dr. Seuss's sometimes-terrifyingly surreal imagery to spend no time gawping at its own invention.
To please the tots, there's a preponderance of slapstick, and to please the adults, there are moments where Horton talks like Henry Kissinger. The trouble is, I'm not certain that many people still know who the hell Kissinger is, much less what he sounds like--much less why his appearance on the run from monkeys throwing bananas is funny; compounded by the fact that the action is so sophisticatedly oddball (the film's centrepiece intersperses a rope bridge with dentistry) that I do wonder if most of its pleasures will go unfelt by younger children. Horton Hears a Who! has the misfortune of locating itself at exactly the place where it's only really valuable as an intellectual exercise in which almost no one in its potential audience is willing, equipped, or likely to engage. A Russian-orthodox vulture hitman (Will Arnett) is fulcrum to the problem: dusty Vaudeville at best, yet the end of his sequence in an endless field of clover is like something out of Oz. Horton Hears a Who! teeters throughout at that juncture between masterpiece and piffle. Destined to be broadly embraced for its surface uplift, the real triumph of it has a lot to do with the source material and the tragedy of it has a lot to do with the studio that brought you those idiot Ice Age movies. But for the moments that work and the images--a bike with hands for wheels, a clockwork that allows the Mayor to spend a few seconds with each of his ninety-plus daughters--that enthral, the film offers a glimpse into exactly how current Dr. Seuss's Revelations-infected, Rube Goldberg-cum-Dali nightmare hinterland can be. Originally published: March 14, 2008.