For some bizarre reason, I was not brought up on the Dr. Seuss books even though, by age and temperament, I should have been. My loss.
As a result, watching the new animated feature "Dr Seuss' Horton Hears a Who" was like living out a second childhood when I hadn't quite experienced the first.
Not that I am unfamiliar with the Seuss books – it's just that I read most of them as an adult. As I said, my loss.
The good news here is that "Horton," directed by Jimmy Haywood and Steve Martino, wonderfully captures the Seuss-ian – or is it Ted Geisel-ian? – world as full-scale animation. The CGI visuals not only serve Geisel's story, they also, much more important, capture his imaginative leaps. This is an animated movie that, unlike the recent "Shrek" series, for example, doesn't try to play up to adults while playing down to children. It also, mercifully, doesn't insert product placements, even as satire – another dubious legacy of the later "Shrek" movies.
The best family-oriented animated movies are almost always the ones that treat the audience as one happy band of enlightened kids. With "Horton" as the signpost, it's easy for an adult to locate his or her "inner child."
Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey) is an elephant who hears a faint cry from a speck of flying dust and discovers that the speck is actually a planet with a city called Who-ville. The voice of alarm belongs to Who-ville's daffy Mayor (voiced by Steve Carell). Horton takes it upon himself to relocate the speck to a safe sanctuary – because "an elephant's faithful 100 percent."
And if that wasn't enough for you, there's also Horton's motto: "A person's a person, no matter how small."
The sheer galumphing bigness of Horton is used to great comic effect. He contrasts beautifully, if only in our imaginations, with the teensy inhabitants of Who-ville. (Horton and the Whos hear, but never see, each other.)
By insisting that the speck houses a city, Horton is the laughing stock of his own world, the jungle of Nool. The Kangaroo, who believes "if you can't see something, it doesn't exist," is particularly derisive. And, since she is voiced by Carol Burnett – who you may recall does a pretty mean Tarzan yell – you can be sure the derision is outlandish.
The inhabitants of Who-ville are equally skeptical of the Mayor's Horton-inspired claims that their planet is in peril – even after things go topsy-turvy and it starts snowing in summer.
In addition to Kangaroo, the film is festooned with other marvelous creatures, including Kangaroo's chief henchman, Vlad (voiced by Will Arnett), a scrappy eagle who sounds as if he's auditioning for "The Godfather," and best of all, Dr. Mary Lou Larue, a purple-haired nerdette with thick safety glasses who, alone among Who-villians, believes in the Mayor's alarms. I don't wish to give offense here, but it certainly doesn't hurt that Mary Lou is voiced by that famously small bundle of energy Isla Fisher. (She's 5-foot-2.)
"Horton" connects with children in the best possible way: by respecting their inquisitiveness (and their smallness!). More so than with most animated family films, it proffers life lessons, but so charmingly that we never feel as if we're being lectured to.
I don't wish to overstate the pleasures of "Horton." It doesn't approach the lyrical heights of which the medium is capable, and there's a conventionally animated ninja scene that doesn't come off at all. But it's so funny and good-natured that I can't imagine anybody not smiling through it. Not even a Grinch. Grade: A–