It might not be the most groundbreaking animated movie in recent years, but the bright and bighearted new adaptation of the 1954 Dr. Seuss classic "Horton Hears a Who!" certainly hits its target.
Without resorting to the crude comedy and shrill theatrics of the most recent live-action Dr. Seuss adaptations, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "The Cat in the Hat," directors Steve Martino and Jimmy Hayward vividly bring to life the author's off-kilter universe. They also remain deeply faithful to Seuss' original story, a quietly spiritual fable about learning to believe in a higher power - and, sometimes, a smaller one, too.
Horton, as Seuss fans probably don't need reminding, is the lovably sensitive elephant with a perfect memory and a ferocious sense of loyalty who also appears in the author's "Horton Hatches the Egg" (1940). One day while frolicking in the jungle, Horton (voice by Jim Carrey) hears a distinct noise coming from a tiny speck of dust floating through the air. When he chases it and captures it on the head of a bright pink clover, he discovers the truth: Living inside that speck is an entire breed of cherubic creatures known as Whos, the residents of a microscopic town called Whoville.
Part of what made Ron Howard's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" such a resolutely sour experience was that it rendered Dr. Seuss' Whos as bunch of malformed, blank-eyed freaks - they looked as if they just stumbled off the set of "The Hills Have Eyes." Martino and Hayward correct this problem, with lovely computer animation that updates the Whos' look to the 21st century while maintaining their goofy, widely grinning appeal.
The Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell) is a particularly adorable creation - an eccentric father (of 99 daughters and one very quiet boy) who becomes convinced that the weather disturbances in his town are signs pointing to the end of Who civilization.
Splendidly narrated by newsman Charles Osgood, "Horton Hears a Who!" follows what happens when Horton and The Mayor find a way to communicate between their two worlds. The Mayor learns that Whoville could be destroyed in an instant and attempts to warn his fellow citizens. But in Whoville, nothing has ever before gone wrong - and so no one pays the Mayor any heed.
For his part, Horton determines to carry the speck of dust to safety. But he soon finds himself subject to widespread ridicule among the jungle creatures, especially from Sour Kangaroo ( Carol Burnett), who doesn't want Horton spreading his fantastical ideas about alternative universes and other species of humanity, and who even goes so far as to hire a vulture hitman (Will Arnett) to destroy the speck.
It doesn't take much effort to discern a religious message here; Dr. Seuss seemed to be arguing against both the dogmatists, like Sour Kangaroo, who insist on shoving their beliefs down others' throats and the agnostics who refuse to accept that, way up in the sky, a God-like invisible elephant might very well be controlling our fates. The screenplay, by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, allows these ideas to flower naturally and subtly so that, by the end, the movie has turned unexpectedly moving. It's a tale of people who maintain their faith and believe so doggedly in themselves that they inevitably triumph over all naysayers. (This was the same theme of last year's masterful "Ratatouille" - a deeply spiritual animated movie that worshipped at the altar of the saute pan.)
"Horton Hears a Who!" is far from perfect: The opening 15 minutes have a frantic, hyper-edited quality that's all too common in kids' movies today - and yet it takes forever for the story to take grip. And while both Carrey and Carell keep the grating comic shtick to a minimum, this movie still suffers from a surfeit of celebrity: Do we really need the distraction of every last supporting part, whether it's Horton's best-friend mouse Morton (Seth Rogen), the Mayor's wife Sally (Amy Poehler) or the nerdy Dr. Mary Lou Larue (Isla Fisher) being voiced by a famous person?
Approached with the proper expectations, though, "Horton Hears a Who!" is gratifying and swift - an ideal Saturday matinee. And compared with some of Pixar's recent efforts, especially "Ratatouille" and "The Incredibles," this movie strikes me as much more suited to younger viewers. (At the very least, you don't need to know the difference between chervil and chives to follow the plot.) Best of all is the movie's marvelous visual look, which bounces between the bright, kid-friendly pop colors of the jungle and the more elegant and mature-looking whites, browns and dark greens of Whoville.
"A person's a person, no matter how small," Dr. Seuss famously wrote. Accordingly, "Horton Hears a Who!" has a little something for everyone.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times