by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & t a Saturday morning preview screening of the newest Dr. Seuss adaptation, I was privileged to witness what happens when someone is absolutely transported by something on-screen. There's a moment in the joyous, happily frantic, action-packed Horton Hears a Who! when the elephant is scrambling to get across a long, rickety suspension bridge, with slats of wood falling off with his every heavy step; the camera is flying around him and the music is both daffy and cacophonous. A 6-year-old boy sitting behind me was so caught up in the movie's craziness that he momentarily lost all self-control, leaping out of his seat and shouting, "Woo-hoo!," followed by "Yee-haw!"
There weren't any moments like this in earlier Dr. Seuss adaptations. The Cat in the Hat lost money, and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas made quite a bit, but both were overwrought films that felt forced, almost as if they were too determined to be funny.
The difference? Animation is the way to go with Dr. Seuss. Both Cat and Grinch were live-action films that brought the familiar Seuss characters to completely unbelievable life. Horton doesn't mess with that recipe. Directed by first-timers Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino (and produced by the folks who gave us the Ice Age movies), Horton makes brilliant use of computer-generated animation (along with small doses of traditional hand-drawn and even anim & eacute; styles) and doesn't give a fig about reality.
The absurd story (I mean that in the most complimentary way) concerns happy-go-lucky Horton, an elephant who one day hears a strange noise coming from a speck of dust that floats by his ear, then settles on a pink clover. Was that sound his imagination or was it a whole miniature world living on that speck, existing in the tiniest of forms within Horton's own world?
Sorry, there are no other choices. So, for entertainment's sake and because this is a wacky Dr. Seuss story, let's go with the latter.
A microscopic peek down into that speck -- which Horton is convinced needs saving -- reveals the thriving population of Who-ville, and presents an invitation to visit with the goofy but well-intentioned Mayor and his family -- his wife, his son and his 96 daughters.
The fanciful film, brimming with colorful and quirky characters, eventually becomes a tale of two characters on the same mission: saving Who-ville. Horton and the Mayor communicate via a ridiculous and clunky "phone" system that's really a drainpipe. Horton wants to help the Whos, and the Mayor wants to be helped. But here's the catch: No one in the jungle believes Horton. In fact, the sourpuss Kangaroo orders him to stop talking foolishly, lest he -- shudder! -- get all the kids to start using their imaginations. Heaven forfend! Neither is it easy on the other side. The city council and most of the population of Who-Ville ("a place where nothing goes wrong") don't believe the Mayor about any impending peril ... or about a giant elephant that they can't see.
With a scattering of hilarious adult references (JFK's speech about sending an American to the moon, Robert Duvall's dialogue about the smell of napalm in Apocalypse Now) and no shortage of silly sight and sound gags for the kids (how many bananas can a monkey stuff in its mouth?), the film's humor is for everyone. Then there's the fantastic -- let's call it fantastical -- set design, and clear but not overt messages about tolerance and believing in oneself. A few genuinely scary moments come courtesy of the villainous (or maybe he's just confused) vulture Vlad (voiced by Will Arnett with a heavy Eastern European accent).
One of the biggest surprises is that while Jim Carrey, as the voice of Horton, pulls out all the usual stops, and gives a wild, manic and heartfelt performance as Horton, it's Steve Carell, who goes even further overboard as the ditzy, almost desperate Mayor. Carol Burnett gives a wonderfully nasty turn as Kangaroo, and the film gets a dose of class with narration and plenty of Dr. Seuss' actual text from CBS news anchor Charles Osgood. Woo-hoo!