The good news about “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” is that it actually looks Seussian, which is more than you can say for the nightmare-inducing, live-action adaptations of “The Cat in the Hat” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” that were sprung on a trusting public in 2003 and 2000, respectively.
For one thing, “Horton” is animated, and its fur-tufted trees and whimsical constructions remain as true to the loopy simplicity of the original book as a computer-generated 3-D rendering can. Yes, the movie burdens its tender, wide-eyed elephant Horton -- humanitarian, do-gooder, Who messiah -- with the voice of Jim Carrey, but it doesn’t let the actor devour the character from within like a flesh-eating parasite.
And surprisingly, the movie retains much of the gentleness and sincerity of the book, if only at intermittent intervals.
The rest of the time, it tries too hard to act cool around the other animated movies, which, for some reason, still swear by the sardonic, pop culture-laden, celebrity-voiced, sitcom-cadenced corporate-speak that keeps trying to pass as humor. When in this mode, “Horton Hears a Who!” compulsively undermines its own message of dedication, respect and perseverance. “An elephant’s faithful one-hundred percent,” Horton says at one point. Then he lowers his eyelids wearily, puts on a funny voice and drawls, “That’s my co-o-de. My mot-to. . . . " So much for sincerity.
The moral, or one of them, of “Horton Hears a Who!” is that every voice counts. But what about a voice that compulsively undermines itself with a sarcasm so aimless and generalized that it serves no purpose but to ensure that nothing is taken seriously?
“Horton” is the story of a gentle, jungle-dwelling elephant who one day discovers an entire world on a speck of dust. The speck has become dislodged from its base on a daisy and is careening toward certain destruction when it floats past Horton, who hears its inhabitants’ cries for help.
Determined to protect the tiny world from harm (“A person’s a person no matter how small,” he declares), Horton carefully nestles the speck in a clover and sets out to find a safe place for the Whos to dwell. On his way, he confronts ridicule, contempt and attempted sabotage by the other animals of the jungle.
Chief among them is an officious kangaroo (Carol Burnett), a busybody killjoy who insists that “If you can’t see it, hear it or feel it, it doesn’t exist.” Kangaroo looks, talks and acts like the crusading conservative type, so it seems an odd dogma for her to be espousing. “A person’s a person no matter how small” is a lovely sentiment -- which also happens to strangely echo one side of the abortion debate.
The reversal continues as Kangaroo engages the black-bottomed eagle Vlad (Will Arnett) -- here a sinister though incompetent Russian super-villain -- to steal Horton’s clover. And when Horton recovers it, she threatens to put him in a cage and leans on him to recant. You scarcely know if you’re watching a Dr. Seuss adaptation or a dramatization of the Galileo affair.
The mayor of Who-ville (Steve Carell), with whom Horton establishes contact, tries to lead the citizenry through their first-ever disaster, but the town is a bastion of denial. Carell’s comic persona, as the hapless bureaucrat, shows through a little more clearly than Carrey’s. The first time the mayor hears Horton, through a vent just outside his office, he asks, “Is this Bert from accounting?”
Is that joke still viable? Was it ever? And what about the “Apocalypse Now” gag? (As the Wickersham Brothers, a band of thuggish monkeys, riddle Horton with bananas shot from their peels like rockets, one of them takes a deep huff and sighs, “I love the smell of bananas in the morning.”) Will it ever be allowed to live out the rest of its days in one of those Palm Springs retirement homes for aging zingers? I hope so.
The movie is at its best when it settles into its two worlds without distancing itself through reflexive sarcasm and objectless irony. Bright, whimsical and beautiful to look at, Who-ville and the Jungle of Nool are magical places full of memorable characters. A bizarre little jungle beast named Katie is a throwaway delight, and the brooding JoJo (Jesse McCartney), here upgraded from Who-ville’s last “shirker” to the mayor’s only son, is funny as the silent only boy out of a hundred siblings.
Directors Jimmy Hayward, a Pixar alumnus, and Steve Martino have created organic, expansive worlds that bring the Dr. Seuss aesthetic to life without corrupting it, from the mayor’s big house in Who-ville to the endless field of pink clovers where Horton hunts for his beloved speck. And unlike so many computer-animated movies, “Horton” doesn’t have that garish, sealed-in-plastic effect that can be so claustrophobic.
The sad thing is that this “Horton” doesn’t stick by its central message -- that every voice counts -- the way Horton sticks to the Whos. It pretends to, but the sincerity is just too scary to commit to fully. Don’t you just love the smell of insecurity in the morning?
MPAA rating: G. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. In wide release.