An Elephant For All Seasons

The primary problem with converting Dr. Seuss into a feature length film is that Seuss’s stories are a distillate of the very essence of drama: A stranger comes to town and changes the characters’ world views (Cat in the Hat); a curmudgeon finds spiritual redemption (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas); a bitter war is waged to the ultimate destruction of both parties (The Butter Battle Book).

A part of his greatness was his ability to play out these dramas in a short space. Even the classic Chuck Jones specials can seem stretched thin, and they run 26 minutes according to IMDB (and I think that’s an exaggeration). The prospect of stretching it out for 88 minutes is not promising, if for no other reason than everything added is not Seuss, and that’s usually painfully obvious.

Imitating Seuss is a common phenomenon, but nobody does it very well. Even Seuss can be said to not add successfully to his own material (as with the extra verses in the TV version of Grinch which he wrote). As a result, you get the abomination that was the live action Grinch, where the Whos lose their pure spiritual goodness and become horrible things that created the Grinch. (I’ve never been able to watch that movie past the first few minutes.)

The next tactic for padding out the source is to fill it with gags. But that’s not easily done, either. Seuss books are really about the essential drama. They’re fun, but they’re not really “jokey”. And they’re never scatological or sexual (another crime of the live-action Grinch). The physical comedy of the cartoon Grinch is probably one of the best approaches, and even that’s more Jones-y than Seuss-y. (For the record, Ralph Bakshi’s The Butter Battle Book is the purest interpretation of Seuss.)

As fraught with peril as the task is, wise men would refuse to take it on. Horton’s directors, Pixar alumnus Jimmy Hayward and Robots art director Steve Martino prove shockingly worthy of the task, fools though they may be.

Poor Horton (Jim Carrey) finds himself custodian to an entire world in the form of a tiny speck that only he can hear the inhabitants of. The if-not-quite-evil-then-meddlesome Kangaroo (Carol Burnett) makes it her business to squash this Horton’s fanciful imaginings, with the help of Will Arnett (as a vulture) and of course, the evil purple monkeys known as the Wickershim Brothers.

Let me say up front that the Wickershims are way scarier and freakier in the Jones cartoon than they are here, despite being pretty similar. (They get a lot more screen time in the ‘toon, and seem irremediably evil there. Plus, they sing in the Jones version. No singing in this one till the end.) Nonetheless, the Flower grabbed my arm a couple of times in fear.

Meanwhle, down in Whoville, the Mayor (Steve Carell) has to save a world that doesn’t believe it’s in any peril, with the help of Isla Fisher as the wacky Who-scientist and Jonah Hill, who plays the tiniest Who of them all.

Most of this film works quite well: Carrey is on a tight leash. In fact, the whole movie shies away from zaniness and super-broad comedy. It’s fairly straight action, for a cartoon. The required length is achieved by having Horton take a long-ish journey and the Mayor having to deal with disbelief in his world.

What doesn’t work that well is the sub-plot where the Mayor doesn’t “get” his son (which isn’t terrible, just not very Seussian) and particularly a little segment of animé, where Horton imagines himself as a ninja (which is thankfully short). In what constitutes an hour’s worth of padding, that’s fairly impressive.

Anyway, The Flower liked the movie a lot. (She was particularly excited when the dialogue actually included some real Seuss words, which didn’t happen much: “I meant what I said and I said what I meant: An elephant’s faithful one-hundred percent.”) The Boy was not displeased, which is high-praise since, in his own words, he has “a low tolerance for the kind of broad humor they usually put into” these things.

Of course, someone’s always trying to co-opt Dr. Seuss. The Wikipedia tries to draw parallels between the Wickershims and Joe McCarthy (“citation needed”), while anti-abortion groups have tried to see it as an anti-abortion tale (“a person’s a person no matter how small”).

But they miss the point: It’s the conflict that’s universal, not the particulars. Horton is like a more heroic Thomas More. He’s told up-front to either give up what he knows to be true or suffer the consequences. Similarly the mayor.

You could apply the particulars to terrorism, global warming, or whatever you wanted.

That’s why Seuss is great.

And these guys are to be commended on preserving that.

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