I’m sorry, but when it comes to Dr. Seuss, I’m definitely a purist. It couldn’t be any other way having grown up with so many great childhood memories of reading his books — or having them read to me — over and over.
When it comes to the movie versions of his books, it often seems like the people making them just don’t get it. I mean, Mike Myers in cat makeup and lots of ephemeral pop-culture jokes? No. Wrong. That’s like taking a wonderful, simple pizza margherita and turning it into one of those misguided concoctions with corn and pineapple on top, and sweaty hot-dog bits lurking amid an ooze of cheesy crust.
But I digress. The best Dr. Seuss adaptations are the ones that stick closest to his works, his world. It’s got to have his rhyming verse, or it only ends up sounding worse. Ditto for his illustrations; actors don’t feel like his creations.
“Just add more” is the fallback position of the creatively challenged, but sometimes — especially with children’s books — perfection lies in a sleek, uncluttered minimalism. Whether it’s “Curious George” or “Noraneko Nakanaide,” the best kid lit is profoundly simple, timeless and to the point.
Hollywood hasn’t figured that out, though. Not surprising, considering they are complicit in giving our kids Attention Deficit Disorder. (“Speed Racer” anyone?)
It’s the made-for-TV version of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” from 1966, that remains the best example of how to do Seuss on screen: the animation — by Chuck Jones — captured Seuss’ style perfectly, elaborating on it and adding just the right amount of clever sight gags. It kept the verse almost entirely intact, narrated crisply — and not without a touch of camp — by Boris Karloff.
Ron Howard’s 2000 live-action remake, by comparison, is typical Hollywood in its late and decadent phase: lots of extravagant special effects, nothing remotely funny, and a running time about four times as long as Jones’ cartoon. There’s also the fact that all those Whos down in Whoville look fine in Seuss’ quirky pictures on the page, but they look positively creepy in 3-D with prosthetic makeup. Bo Welch’s version of “The Cat In The Hat” (2003) was all the above and worse.
So expectations were not high for the latest Dr. Seuss adaptation, “Horton Hears A Who,” especially since Jim Carrey — who previously played the Grinch — was back in the lead role, and threatened to mercilessly mug his way through this role as well. Fortunately, Horton is an elephant, and rather than train Carrey to walk on all fours with a hose strapped to his face, the filmmakers decided to go with animation instead. Yes, it’s computer animation and not old-school (it’s by the team who made “Ice Age”), but the results are more satisfyingly Seussian than anything that’s come down the pike in a long while.
The story is a charmer, one of Seuss’ best, in which a gentle elephant named Horton is just getting his chill on in the jungle one day when his oversize elephant ears pick up a whine emanating from a speck of dust floating by. He catches the microbe, and positions it carefully within a pink flower. Soon he finds there’s an entire buzzing, bulbous city called Whoville contained in that speck, and Horton starts up a conversation with its mayor (Steve Carrell).
Horton can barely believe his ears, but the other denizens of the jungle — including a killjoy kangaroo voiced by Carol Burnett — think he’s gone batty. The same problem is faced by Whoville’s mayor, who, after speaking with Horton, has to convince his citizens that there’s a big thing in the sky called an elephant and their entire world is smaller than a piece of couscous. Aside from playing like Philip K. Dick for the under-6 set, there’s also a soft lesson here that size doesn’t matter, that “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”
“Horton” doesn’t avoid all the pitfalls of the genre; at times it seems more “Spongebob Squarepants” than Seuss, and the filmmakers just couldn’t resist the urge to have a line in there with someone saying “Duuuude!” (Which will make this dated in a way Seuss’ books are not.) But they keep a lot of his rhymes intact, Carrey slows down a bit to play the lovable doofus Horton, and some of the animation — including an evil vulture who tries to steal the speck — is simply fantastic. Definitely a step in the right direction.