Horton Hears a Who!:
I will not rhyme and I will make sense. I promise you this, though I'm feeling quite tense. And you see, already, I'm lying (though trying) to keep my hands steady - I'm failing, I'm dying. 90 minutes of Seuss will do that to anyone - bright colors! The singing! Was this ever fun? But it was, for the little ones, in very small doses, even while hearing Doc's political poses. And what better time for this collection you ask? Horton's part is quite small, though up to the task of promoting the new grand CGI scheme. (It's part of Hollywood's plan to rake green from the dream of the learned old man, you see.)
God that hurts. But the reality is a feature-length adaptation of Horton Hears A Who! Is about to be released, so what better time to release this collection. Featuring the titular 26-minute animated special brought to TV in 1970, the disc also contains the weird Ralph Bakshi-produced 22-minute Dr. Seuss's Butter Battle Book, (made for Turner Television in 1989) the less weird and more-bland Daisy-Head Mayzie (1994) and the sublime Warner Brothers short Horton Hatches the Egg! (1942) - just don't try to watch them all in a row or your head will explode.
Taken as a separate genre, Dr. Seuss animated cartoons are a hit and miss affair. The aforementioned Warner Brothers bit gets it right, keeping things brief, breezy and pleasing for adults and kids. And despite the phenomenon that is How The Grinch Stole Christmas, other, longer pieces don't fare as well. You see, the books are consumable in one rather short sitting, with you the reader in the driver's seat, controlling and delighting in the flow of Dr. Seuss's (Theodor Geisel) poetry. Not so on screen, as Horton and Who, Butter Battle and Daisy-Head feel somewhat bloated and lugubrious - forced to bow to conventions of filmmaking and padded with increasingly less-catchy songs to fill up space.
When Horton hears that Who Seuss's agenda (righteous as it is) becomes obvious, clearly it works and is beneficial to the kids, though it wears on adult viewers. Don't discount science, be sure to question the government party line and value all creatures, races and creeds equally. Delightful colors and perky animation give some ground to the hand-drawn cell bugaboo - reusing bits over and over. Creepy monkeys - hell-bent on boiling the presumptive tiny civilization Horton finds on a clover - push the boundaries, along with songs that don't hold up, making Horton Hears a Who! A dim second to the Grinch - even though I remember loving Horton as a kid.
Bakshi's comparatively sloppy animation for Butter Battle really dims the lights. Cold war paranoia reigns as the clock ticks ever closer to midnight. You see, on the other side of the wall, those people butter the wrong side of their bread! A resulting arms race puts families and grandchildren in peril, while the slack animation, long dull spots and lackluster songs make the cliffhanger ending all the more jarring. It's amazing what fearing nuclear destruction will do to you, but by this day and age, we don't even seem too rattled by that prospect.
Poor Daisy-Head Mayzie finds - I'll let you guess - a daisy growing from her head. Through songs sung by numerous quirky characters - the scientist, the government official, and the Hollywood agent - Daisy ultimately learns that being different is OK, and that fame and money aren't all they're cracked up to be. At a breathless pace, Daisy-Head Mayzie has attention-holding power. The songs are slightly above par, though to story's more facile, but as far as animation for today's kids go, this, and Horton Hatches the Egg! are the winners. Horton's egg is that off a lazy bird named Maisy, who, after conning Horton into sitting on said egg, flies off to vacation in Palm Beach. Horton's loyalty to the egg is rewarded with ever more absurd indignities told in excellent Merry Melodies fashion, with brisk, spot-on rhyming dialog/narration, and humor that hits a huge demographic. Who can forget the Peter Lorre look-alike fish who shoots himself in the head after seeing Horton go by on a ship?
Horton Hears a Who! is a weird collection of animation that points out the difficulty in adapting Seuss's sublime work to the screen. I guess young viewers will be far less discriminating than me, probably loving every bit, but please for your own sake, keep the Seuss doses small.
All features and extras are in standard fullscreen format at a 1.33:1 ratio and are newly remastered (although the documentary doesn't look like it, showing a fair amount of film grain that was probably intended to make it look vintage). The four feature shorts look pretty spectacular with eye-popping color and smooth compression. Some film grain and damage appears in very minor instances on all features, (except Daisy-Head) owing to their age.
English Dolby Digital Surround Sound Stereo Audio and the same for the French track are available, but only Mono Audio for the Spanish language track. It's all loud and clear, sounding as good as new.
Weighing in at 90 minutes, the champion extra on this DVD is the documentary In Search of Dr. Seuss. Made in 1994 for Turner Broadcasting, this docu combines extensive clips from various Seuss animated features, live song-and-dance numbers, archival still-shots of Seuss's early cartoons and a cast of costumed stars (green eggs and) hamming it up. Matt Frewer as The Cat in the Hat and Kathy Najimy as an intrepid reporter intent on getting the real scoop about Seuss star in what I'll unkindly call a fairly grating effort hosted by a relatively unappealing duo. Imaginatively staged with delirious sets and brio to spare, lots of time is given to staged or clips-based summations of various Seuss works - all with the intent of explaining what Seuss was driving at. Seuss was very politically minded, hating all forms of discrimination, and couldn't stand the pabulum fed to kids as kiddie-lit. While touching on many points most don't know about Seuss, the docu is far from exhaustive, seeming padded by all the skits, stories and overacting by the likes of Frewer, Patrick Stewart, Christopher Lloyd and Robin Williams. Najimy just seems wrong for her part, and ultimately it's all rather exhausting instead. For the record, Seuss took his nom-de-plume from his mother's maiden name, which (though it's far too late to change now) actually rhymes with 'voice.' A Sing-along Music Video You Can Hear Horton, Horton Can Hear You! is the remaining extra, unless you count Previews,English, French and Spanish Audio Tracks and English/Spanish Subtitles for the titular short.
I love Dr. Seuss, (Fox In Sox is my all-time favorite) and see how my daughter enjoys that lovable Horton even if she's too young to understand the story. However, Horton Hears a Who! seems an also-ran compared to the masterful Grinch special, while the others on this disk (even the documentary, but not the Warner Brothers short) are a little further below par for adult viewing. Kids will love it all, except maybe the weird Butter Battle, but it's probably best to dole the features out sparingly. In the end, I feel Seuss works best when read aloud, as cinematic contrivances in animating the stories, especially the less and less endearing songs, only seem to slow the train down. If you're a huge Seuss fan with kids you'll probably want to own this, but those just looking for a nostalgia kick, or less inclined to plop the tots in front of the box will do fine to Rent It.
- Kurt Dahlke
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