Was Dr. Seuss, née Theodor Seuss Geisel, oblivious to his own genius? The allegory of his charming Horton Hears a Who! remains fluid today and, like its crafty rhymes, ebbs and flows with the times. The conviction of an innocent pachyderm known as Horton to stand up against tyranny and for the survival of the unseen Whos was once recognized as a reaction to McCarthyism — one as scorching as Arthur Miller's The Crucible. The pro-life movement, to Seuss' dismay, would co-opt Horton's signature rallying call — "A person's a person, no matter how small!" And I don't hesitate to say that this venerable creature, given his essential decency and unquenchable need to enlighten the world, is best understood as a Jimmy Carter type. Such is the generosity of Seuss' art: Beneath his bright, wild style thrives devilish moral and political ambiguity that invites our nuttiest observations and reflects our every belief.
Now a CGI movie you wouldn't be remiss for dreading after Ron Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Bo Welch's The Cat in the Hat, Horton Hears a Who! has blessedly been conceived and executed in reverence to Seuss' original story. The film's verbal and visual interplay is not as batty or queer as it was in Chuck Jones' 1970 short, and the animation is prone to cruel and inexplicable digressions — from a lightning-fast flashback homage to Seuss' 1954 animation to a shrill tip of the hat to the ninja-style high jinks of Pokémon — but the film pads out the original narrative with some meaningful new ideas. Unseen in the original Jungle of Nool, the young critters at Horton's side have plush-doll bodies that are obvious concessions to the film's Saturday-morning demographic, but their ardent desire to learn from Horton stresses the filmmakers' belief that Seuss' panoptic message is something to pass down, like a torch, between generations.
Behold chaos theory in action: An errant nut bumps a speck of dust from a flower's cushion-tight pistil and into the air until it nests on a clover near Horton (Jim Carrey) and provokes philosophical inquiry when the elephant learns that the town of Whoville resides within the curious particle. The youth of Nool are rapt by the animal's hefty introspection — "If you were way out in space and you looked down at where we live, we would look like a speck" — and heed his urgent call to save Whoville's denizens. But Kangaroo (Carol Burnett), blinkers on, will not have any of it — because if you can't see, hear, or feel it, it mustn't exist, right? Wrong! And so, a perturbed Horton journeys to save Whoville, and like the wee town's mayor (Steve Carell), who's desperate to convince his peers that there's a world beyond theirs, Horton's struggle is to explode preconceptions and fight to have one's voice heard.
The film resists the excessive pop-cultural references of the Shrek franchise and, even at its most unbridled and inevitable (WhoSpace, where the people of Whoville connect with their friends!), the humor is in the spirit of Seuss' original rhymes. Directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino mercifully find a muzzle for Carrey's typically spastic energy (his voice is almost as unrecognizable here as his face was beneath the hairy green latex he donned to play the Grinch). And even when the script threatens to throw the movie off-kilter, as in a seemingly contrived reference to John F. Kennedy's lunar aspirations, Carrey manages to find poignancy, in this instance connecting Horton's own hopeful ambitions to raise the consciousness of Nool's motley populace to JFK's.
Horton, a "warrior poet" to his friend Morton (Seth Rogen), is the antithesis of the malicious Grinch, and when a bird drops his prized clover into a vast field of similar flora, the elephant's shock is palpable. It's uncommon for a cartoon to be afflicted with such fierce conviction, and so it's especially thrilling when this eye-opening film, during its nervy climax, doesn't shy away from casting Horton as John Proctor to Kangaroo's lynch mob. Also rare for a cartoon of this kind to find room in its vernacular for "the democratic process," but don't reduce Horton Hears a Who! to some lefty screed. Rather than trivializing or antagonizing with its collision of secular and religious beliefs, the film recognizes how faith is an essential part of both value systems. Respect is what Horton's preaching, and that's a message to be foisted on children guilt-free.