A Whole New World

The Baltimore Sun

With Horton Hears a Who!, the inventive gang at Blue Sky Studios have concocted an ebullient full-length feature from Dr. Seuss' slender comic verse narrative about an elephant whose big ears detect a whole world on a dust-speck.

Unlike live-action filmmakers Ron Howard with How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Bo Welch with The Cat in the Hat, the Blue Sky team (including directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino and writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul) stays true to the spirit and characters of the book while embellishing it to overflowing.

If you haven't picked up the book since grade school (it first appeared in 1954), watching the movie brings you the rare feeling of reconnecting with a childhood friend who looks and acts different but in some essential way has stayed the same.

In fact, Horton is a near-perfect buddy - Dr. Seuss (or Theodor Geisel, his real name) had the genius to extend the idea of an elephant never forgetting to an elephant never forgetting a pal. In a line the writers borrow from another jolly Seuss masterwork, Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton (Jim Carrey) tells his new compadre, the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell), "An elephant's faithful, one hundred percent."

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The movie is about Horton sticking to that motto, that creed, even when every other grown creature in the Jungle of Nool thinks he's off his gourd - and everyone in Whoville thinks the Mayor is nuts, too.

The movie is a survival tale with divine pratfalls instead of disasters. Horton tests the limits of endurance and flexibility, as well as the length of his trunk, trying to protect his speck from villains who think his belief in it undercuts the status quo. And the mayor must convince his constituents that Whoville has an unseen ally named Horton as the other Noolians strive to rock his world.

For kids, the movie has multiple fascinations. The Whos are like imaginary friends who turn out to be real: "We're a club, we're a group," exults Horton; "We can be a secret society and no one else can join, unless they wear funny hats." Their existence on a mote-sized world opens up the idea of an innerspace as vast as outer space. And the youthful denizens of the Jungle of Nool experience Horton's Whoville as an explosion of creativity and new possibilities.

For adults, the film does more than trigger nostalgia: It demonstrates the sweetness and toughness of childhood ideals, and says carrying them with you makes you stronger. The writers see Horton's insistence on Whoville's existence as an anarchic outburst and generational rallying point (similar to ideas that Chuck Jones and Geisel advanced in a 26-minute, 1970 cartoon).

It divides Horton from authority figures like a mean mother kangaroo (Carol Burnett) and unites him with the jungle youth and, ultimately, all the inhabitants of Whoville.

The reason this Blue Sky cartoon can be just as busy as those awful live-action Dr. Seuss films but still achieve elation and charm is that the animators have a genuine vision that links up with the original's.

"A person's a person, no matter how small," Horton says, stating the story's most explicit moral, and that's always been part of Blue Sky's philosophy, starting with that squirrel-rat, Skrat, in its first feature, Ice Age.

Not all the verbal gags are first-rate, but they're often surprising, especially when Horton imitates Henry Kissinger and John F. Kennedy. And visually the movie is a whirligig that lifts you up without tiring you out. The Blue Sky artists see nature and civilization as Rube Goldberg machines on a cosmic scale. They love all the blood, sweat and gears that go into making worlds (and worlds-within-worlds) work - it's what gives their animation its distinct squiggly motion. "These luxury condos don't build themselves," mutters a hard-hatted Who of authority. Then a knock from Nool above sends all the materials flying - and the condos do build themselves.

The animators fill the Jungle of Nool with mass characters like the Wickershams - monkeys who take mischief to a level bordering on evil and use bananas as everything from projectiles to binoculars. This film's Circle of Life is full of bristling curlicues. When there's a jungle mob scene here, it's less like The Lion King than a slapstick version of Zulu. But there are memorable individuals, too, such as the furry little critters who are Horton's true believers. One tiny girl says that her speck-world is inhabited by ponies "who eat rainbows and poop butterflies."

Carrey and the animators imbue Horton with resilience and elan that merge into an oddball grace, and Carell is more touching as the beleaguered Whoville mayor with 96 daughters, one son and a loyal wife, than he was in the live-action Dan in Real Life. The filmmakers turn that one son, Jojo (in the book the smallest Who of all), into a Tim Burton character - a morose tyke with a vast interior life and untapped creativity.

This Jojo fits right into Blue Sky's Horton Hears a Who!, a movie that urges everyone, no matter how marginalized or small, to blow their own horns - and turns what could have been cacophony into a feature-length silly symphony.

michael.sragow @baltsun.com

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