Movie Review: Heavyhandedness and Horrible Humor Haunt Horton Hears A Who

Before beginning this review, in the interests of full Disclosure I have a few Disclaimers to Declare. A short time ago, following a link on Stephen's blog I read this article by Lou Engle regarding the then-upcoming movie Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears A Who!. Engle "prophesies" that this book and movie is (albeit unwittingly) an allegory about ending abortion, specifically about young people (represented by Jo-Jo in the story) raising their voices in defense of the unborn (somehow also represented by the Whos). I don't know Engle and I've never heard him speak, so I can't say much, but I think this article is not a little far-fetched. I appreciate his belief in God's sovereignty, and how God can use people even without their knowledge to accomplish His ends, but I think some of Engle's connections are pretty ridiculous. He believes the antagonistic kangaroo stands for the "kangaroo court" that legalized abortion in 1973; he offers this explanation for the line "In the Fairfax Apartments (Apartment 12-J)": "12 = government; J = Justice"; he sees the line "The time for all Whos who have blood that is red" corresponding somehow to the "Blood," presumably of Jesus; and (one of my favorites) he interprets little Jo-Jo's exclamation of the nonsense word "YOPP!" as an acronym for Young Ones Praying and Prophesying. I admit that I could be wrong that this is going too far, and it's possible that Engle is correct, but I think that most of that stuff is laughable. And because Engle argued so intensely for this book being used by God to end abortion in our generation, I have to confess that that made me slightly prejudiced against the movie. More than that, I know that movies made from books tend to be far inferior to the books themselves, so I figured that this movie would be no different. SO, all that to say, I wasn't at all sure that the movie would be very good as I entered the theater last night to see it. But I wanted to keep an open mind, and I hoped that the movie itself would dispel my unfavorable expectations.

I wish I could say that it did, but (as you've already gathered from reading the title) it did not. In fact, it was much worse.

To be fair, I feel like everyone else who saw it with me (the people who were left toward the end of C-Pat's birthday party) enjoyed it. Mike said it was one of the best animated movies he's ever seen, and he's likely to buy both the soundtrack and the movie; Courtney thought it was cute. And I remember Jessica telling me that she really liked it. Unfortunately, I must beg to differ.

If I had to sum up the movie in one word, that word would be "stupid." How art thou stupid, movie? Let me count the ways:

1. The humor. It wasn't even random-stupid humor which is funny to some people but not to others (e.g. Napoleon Dynamite or The Office). It was just plain lame and unfunny. Tired, worn-out jokes we've heard a million times before and were funny maybe the first ten times. Which brings me to my next point:

2. The clichés. There was hardly anything original in this movie, and hardly anything was presented in a clever or fresh sort of way. Besides being uninteresting, they made watching the movie tiresome, and I found myself wondering--during the climactic scene, no less--how much longer I'd have to sit and continue watching it.

3. The messages. As the review in our local newspaper asked: "Why is the kangaroo so angry?" I don't understand why the kangaroo is so upset about Horton believing in the Whos; her reasoning (which she shares with a mob who gets angry unrealistically quickly) is, "He's teaching the children to use their imaginations!" This would be a funny line if it weren't so blatantly stupid. Does anyone really think that even a villian would say this? The kangaroo may be authoritarian and closed-minded but she's not stupid enough to say something like that. And the mob. They have even less reason to be upset than the kangaroo does, and they're ready to lynch Horton just because he hears voices. I'm all for movies showing up how easily people get caught up in blind followings (portrayed well, for example, in Monty Python's Life Of Brian), but this is ridiculous. The message that Engle (rightly) attaches to is "A person's a person, no matter how small," but that comes across much more strongly in the musical and the book than the movie. And when the Mayor tries to warn the city council that Whoville is facing its impending doom, they push a smiley-face button which first puts him under a glass jar and then escorts him out with some boot-kicks in his rear. Why are they so intensely focused on making sure that nothing bad ever happens that they have a smiley-face button? The idea of an authoritarian regime perpetuating the myth of a false utopia is a perfect example of how heavyhanded the movie is--does that intense of a subplot, even when it tries to present itself in a funny way, really fit into a movie that's supposed to be whimsical?

4. The music. (You knew this was coming, didn't you?) If I had to score this movie, I would make it sparse, fun, and whimsical. John Powell's score uses a large orchestra with lots of powerful brass and drums, and ridiculously over-the-top triumphant fanfares more suited to a sports drama than a children's story. It was one of many heavyhanded elements that detracted awfully from the movie. According to his IMDB page, Powell has scored a bunch of animated kids' movies including Ice Age 2, Robots, Shrek, and Chicken Run, and has been a prolific composer of all kinds of movies since the late 1990s. I don't know if this was just a random miss for him, but you'd think he'd have gotten the hang of it by now. The musical setting of the one line "A person's a person, no matter how small" in the musical Seussical shows more understanding of Dr. Seuss than this entire score does.

5. The characters. I have nothing against Jim Carrey and Steve Carell--in fact I generally like them--except for the fact that they tend to play exactly the same characters in every one of their movies. But they are miscast in this film, for that very reason. Horton (Carrey) is a silly oaf and the Mayor of Whoville (Carell) is incompetent, narrow-minded and unsympathetic. In the book, if I recall, Horton is good-hearted and simple but not idiotic, and the Mayor is harassed because his message is unbelievable, not because his personality is. And Jo-Jo, who in the book is just a "very small shirker" who doesn't raise his voice at first, in the movie is cast as the Mayor's misunderstood and semi-rebellious son, with emo-style hair and moodiness, who looks different from every other Who. Why?

6. The animation. I have to confess that the animation, in and of itself, was very good, and Courtney in particular said that it was one of her favorite aspects of the movie. But it wasn't Dr. Seuss. It was slick, smooth, airbrushed and picture-perfect; it lacked the bold strokes, goofiness and simplicity of the original drawings. Of course, I know that they weren't trying to animate the original drawings; but (I must qualify this) to a certain degree the medium says something about the message, and the animation certainly betrayed the movie's disconnect with Seuss' original ideas.

These last three points display the movie's greatest weakness: its complete misunderstanding of its subject material. It takes a great story by one of the greatest children's authors of all time, Dr. Seuss, and makes it into a slickly-packaged Disney-style movie, and a bad one at that. I understand that they were making their own movie, but if they had such a great affinity for Dr. Seuss (which they apparently do since they put his name in the movie's title), why did they stray so far from the spirit of the good doctor's story? Perhaps the best example is a scene in which Horton is traveling to Mount Nool to provide the Whos with a safe place to live, and imagines himself to be a daring hero. This initiates a sequence that is a spoof of manga/Pokemon-style animation, with intentionally over-the-top exaggerations and comic-book-type fighting. It's mildly funny, but ridiculously out of place even in this ridiculous movie, and is a poor parody, not a reflection, of Seuss' imagination. Although Seuss weaves important messages into his stories (e.g. "A person's a person, no matter how small"), he does it in such a way that the stories remain fun, funny and whimsical. This movie is none of those things, but rather tiresome, lame and heavyhanded, which sometimes makes it seem like it's trying too hard. The very end is a good example: Horton postulates that even his world, which is unimaginably large to the Whos on the speck of dust, may be only a speck to another, even more unimaginably large world. A worthy sentiment which is not too badly portrayed. As he finishes, the camera pulls out until the world upon which Horton and his friends stand is only a speck floating through space with other specks... until one of the characters from the previous scene floats by, herself as large as the specks. The movie undermines its own message for the sake of a cheap joke.

I suppose I must concede the fact that I may be way off base, because I seem to be the only person who feels this way. A quick glance at Google's compliation of reviews gives the movie 4 out of 5 stars, with 22 positive reviews, 10 neutral ones and only 1 negative. Rotten Tomatoes, another review compiler, shows it at 78% positive from a total of 110 reviews. It also shows this tagline: "Consensus: Stays true to the spirit of Dr. Seuss' classic story." In my view this could not be further from the truth. I suppose this is either a sad Commentary on our Culture's Critical Commentators... or a sad commentary on my Proclivity to Pontificate Peevishly on Pessimistic Points.

Any comments? Agree or disagree? Why?


Mike Morabito said...

"or a sad commentary on my Proclivity to Pontificate Peevishly on Pessimistic Points." Yeah.


I have some more comments to add at a later time. You make some excellent points.

Also, in reference to this being one of the best animated movies of all time, I do have to point out that in my own opinion (if anybody is wondering) Lion King is the best animated movie ever, probably followed by Aladdin.

AJ, I think you said your favorite animated movie of all time was Jungle Book? Just curious.


Rauta Tanwënya said...

I haven't seen the movie and I probably wont bother, but I wonder what Horton would be like if Dr. Seuss made it himself... oh wait... he did:


patrick said...

they didn't seem to add much to the original story either except for the usual Jim-Carryisms.

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