Messing with perfection is a dangerous thing. How do you make something that is already as good as it gets better? It’s simple – you don’t. What makes last weekend’s blockbuster, Horton Hears a Who!, such a success is that the filmmakers (two writers and two directors) knew that they could give audiences a joyful entertaining ride but they couldn’t monkey with it much. They couldn’t really alter the story’s message, for instance, as it has become iconic: A person’s a person no matter how small.
It is a touching book and a touching film, thanks to the tip-toeing of the writers, and the fine voice work by Jim Carrey, Steve Carrel, Carol Burnett, Amy Poehler, and Seth Rogan, but even still, there always comes that moment when watching any Seuss adaptation (with the possible exception of the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas) where you conclude: reading Dr. Seuss is far more satisfying an experience overall.
This is, of course, because what makes Dr. Seuss’ work so timeless is the writing. Whenever they’ve removed the writing and left the characters or the plot, the whole thing has collapsed, even if it did make a lot of money. Horton Hears a Who! looks like it might be one of those awful, loud, useless money grabs aimed at the broadest possible audience but it is, instead, a loving re-creation of a story that has resonance today.
Because Seuss was a master of the simple-yet-profound, it is impossible not to make more of his stories. Horton Hears a Who! appears to be a magnet for all sorts of causes, like pro-life, for instance, or perhaps anti-war. What it is, though, is a story about compassion and honor.
Horton the elephant hears a tiny voice, no more than the size of the head of a pin, balanced precariously atop a clover flower. Eventually, Horton figures out that there is a whole town in there, with a mayor (Carell). We find out that the little world has citizens and weather patterns. The mayor has a family. Before long, the little speck of dust is a whole world that must be protected by Horton.
Everyone thinks he’s crazy, naturally, and an angry kangaroo (Burnett) hires a dim-witted vulture to put an end to Horton’s ravings. Horton nearly kills himself trying to save the town of Whoville, partly because he knows there are people living there (no matter how small) and partly because he gave his word, which, to an elephant, means everything.
With delightful jokes throughout, passable animation, and above-average voice-casting, Horton is, thankfully, one of the best Dr. Seuss adaptations to make it to the big or small screen. It is not surprising that the film earned $45 million opening weekend, and is poised to become one of the biggest hits of the year. This is probably because good movies that are safe enough for the youngest ones and entertaining enough for the older ones are few and far between these days, and especially lately.
Hopefully anyone looking to bring any other beloved Dr. Seuss story to the big screen will take a lesson from this team: if it ain’t broke, don’t “fix” it. Keep Dr. Seuss’ own words front and center and if possible stay away from live action; animation is the way to go.