The job seems like it should have been a cakewalk for three of America’s most gifted comedians: a couple of weeks in a recording booth voicing laughable yet lovable characters for a big-budget, computer-generated animation adaptation of the beloved children’s book “Horton Hears a Who!”
So it was reasonable for Jim Carrey, Carol Burnett and Steve Carell to expect the project to be one of those windfall gigs that accompany a certain strata of Hollywood stardom: fat paychecks and critical props from every kid in the world for what is essentially a performance they could give wearing sweatpants and no makeup.
But to listen to them recount the experience, the actors’ vocal contributions to the film version of “Horton!” resulted in feelings of frustration, isolation, creative confusion -- even bodily pain.
“It was much more complicated than they promised it was going to be,” Carrey said, sucking down coffee at a small table in Beverly Hills’ Four Seasons Hotel on a recent Sunday. Sitting across from him, Burnett and Carell nodded in agreement. “At the beginning, they come and say, ‘A half an hour and you’re out of there,’ ” Carrey continued. “Months later, you’re taking another Saturday. It was a lot of work. I was sorer leaving the studio some days -- throat raunched and physically drained -- than if I was in front of a camera.”
Not exactly what you expect to hear from a guy who, early in his career, made millions pretending to talk out of his rear end -- and for whom goofy, free-form volubility is a default setting. But Burnett, a comic icon and enduring TV star (anointed an American Master on a PBS special last year), and Carell, who has flexed his funny on NBC’s “The Office” and in films such as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” echo his assertion that making “Horton” was no laughing matter.
“It’s a little difficult to admit that it was hard,” Carell said. “To me, the most difficult aspect was trying to find what the directors wanted. I didn’t have any interaction with any of the other characters. I didn’t know how Jim would be saying a line. I didn’t hear any of the playback. What was so strenuous was trying to get as many completely different reads as possible. Because there’s no frame of reference.”
Burnett accepted the role in large part because of Carrey and Carell’s participation. For her, acting in almost total isolation was anything but Who-larious.
“I got very frustrated at one point,” she exclaimed, accidentally knocking over Carrey’s drink. “See? I told you I was mad.”
In the film as in the book (first published in 1954), a giant, overzealous elephant named Horton (Carrey) overhears a tiny scream coming from a tiny white speck being carried by the breeze. Fearing it might house some infinitesimally small family in jeopardy, he vows to keep the speck safe from harm despite the jeers of friends and the scorn of a vindictive jungle elder, Kangaroo (Burnett), who pressures Horton to ditch the speck.
Turns out it’s home to a microscopic town called Who-ville, whose bumbling mayor (Carell) entreats Horton to carry the Whos on an epic journey to safety -- even if that means Horton must incur Kangaroo’s wrath, not to mention the murderous vulture (voiced by “Arrested Development” alum Will Arnett) she hires to track him down and destroy the speck.
(“A person’s a person, no matter how small,” the empathetic elephant continually insists as he soldiers on his adventure. Pro-life activists have long attempted to co-opt this message, however the late epochal children’s author Dr. Seuss -- ne Theodor Seuss Geisel -- denied any political subtext to the line. However, a week after this interview, at the movie’s Hollywood premiere, a group of demonstrators reportedly infiltrated the screening, chanting anti-abortion slogans and eliciting reactions from the audience such as “This is a kids’ premiere!” and “How dare you!”)
Adapted for the screen by co-directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino (who lent their computer animation experience to the 2005 sci-fi cartoon romance “Robots”), “Horton” is the first CG-animated film to be based on any work by Dr. Seuss. His widow, Audrey Geisel, proposed Carrey for the emotionally outsized title role in part because of his history with her husband’s work; Carrey portrayed the Grinch in director Ron Howard’s 2000 live-action Seuss adaptation, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
“I’m just so honored to be part of his legacy at all,” Carrey said of Seuss. “I’m just so lucky.” He paused: “I just hope he doesn’t punch me out when I go into the next realm.”
Spend even a short amount of time with Burnett, Carrey and Carell together and you’ll observe a group made up of more acquaintances than amigos, cast mates bonded by a common undertaking rather than a shared experience.
“The first time we were all three together was when we did the ‘Oprah’ show,” said Burnett. “But we got to know each other very well on the plane.”
Still, their recording-booth recollections remained remarkably consistent.
“They’d call you to do the same stuff you’d done a month earlier,” Burnett said, then adding, in the voice of a director: “ ‘Act as if it’s a secret. Act as if you want the whole world to know. Now act as if you’ve got your hand on your hip. With attitude!’ It could be the same line but they have you do it 40 different ways.”
Smiling broadly, Carrey turned to Burnett and asked: “Didn’t you think the first couple of times, ‘This is going to be terrible!’?”
Again, more grins and nods of agreement.
He went on: “The reason they hire people like us is, when they start, I basically don’t think they know where they’re going. They have kind of an outline. But they want people to come in with ideas and make moments happen.”
And happen they did. For whatever professional angst Carell may have experienced in front of the microphone, the actor -- father to a Seuss-loving 3-year-old and 6-year-old -- gave the final product a qualified thumbs-up.
“What I was most dubious about from the very beginning was that it would look like Dr. Seuss. But it’s vibrant. It’s three-dimensional. And I was most surprised that I ended up with a lump in my throat at the end of the movie,” Carell said. “I still felt emotionally involved. So . . . I’m a wimp.”
Carrey and Burnett looked at each other, then at Carell. Sunlight streamed into the room. All of them tilted their heads back and laughed as one.