In 10 Words or Less
The classic kids book goes feature-length with slight bloat
Loves: Animation, Steve Carrell, Katie
Likes: Dr. Seuss, Jim Carrey
Dislikes: Digital copies
Hates: Conservative fearmongers, Video watermarking
You have to feel a bit bad for a studio like Blue Sky Studios. No matter what success they have in animation, and, with a popular trilogy of Ice Age films in their portfolio, they certainly have been successful, they will never be a Pixar, as that name has almost come to mean computer animated feature films, like a Xerox or Band-Aid. But that obviously won't stop them from trying, and even importing Pixar talent to do so, like giving animator Jimmy Hayward his first co-directing gig, adapting the classic Dr. Seuss story, Horton Hears a Who.
At its core, the story is about recognizing the value of a person, despite their size, as Horton, an enormous elephant, becomes aware of a voice coming from a small speck of matter, and comes to learn there's an entire city of Whos on that speck, led by the Mayor, who's never had much to do, as nothing bad has ever happened. Realizing how precipitous the Whos' situation is, considering their small size, Horton decides to be their protector, which makes him a target of ridicule in the Jungle of Nool, led by a mean kangaroo, as none of the other animals can hear the minuscule Who's. Looking to make him stop his talk of a tiny world, they try to get that speck away from him, setting up the action of the rest of the film.
The film changes a few bits from the book, including making Jo-Jo the shirker into the Mayor's son, giving the film a deeper emotional center, serving as an additional relationship to go with the bond between Horton and the mayor, but most of the rest of the story is still in place, held together by Charles Osgood's narration, which has just the right effect. What's new is the updating, which takes the form of of the occasional new character (like Horton's mouse pal Morton,) additional dialogue, frequently of the sillier or referenial type (like a Henry Kissenger imitation certain to be a hit with the kids), and more complex staging, like the film's signature bridge scene or the fleshing out of Who-ville, including the Mayor's ginormous family.
If you never read the book, the majority of it would not seem out of place, which I guess makes it a success. What does stand out? There are, for lack of a better word, political moments throughout. Seuss was quite unhappy when the anti-abortion movement latched onto the book's line of "a person's a person, no matter how small," but this movie has touches of politics all over it that weren't in the book, including a town council more concerned with PR than safety and the injection of conservative culture-war rhetoric into the book's sour kangaroo (who now "pouch-schools" her joey.) It may just be added-value for the adults watching (like Horton's philosophical musings or the Whos view of him as a god) but it wasn't really needed. Having a better effect as an addition are the scenes done from the perspective of Horton's imagination, which result in a perfect animation of Seuss' original art and an anime-style moment that's most enjoyable for a Steve Carrell line-reading.
The look of the film is easily the most impressive part of the movie, as it managed to take the flat line-art of Seuss' work and give it depth and texture, without losing any of the charm or style. Though the settings (and water effects in particular) are rendered with far more realism than anything Seuss ever did, especially the darker aspects of the jungle of Nool, there's no mistaking the design of Horton or the look of Who-vllle as anything but Seussian. (See the design of Katie the yak for a perfect example, as well as one of the most oddly adorable creatures ever animated.) The loose-limbed Whos and elastic animals are excellently animated as well, helping to deliver the energy of motion the story deserves.
The other part of that energy is the voice cast, which is simply star-studded, starting with Jim Carrey as the titular elephant and Carrell as the Mayor. Though neither is as wacky as they have been in the past (like both actors' Almighty movies) they do a nice job of being silly with a purpose, though Carrell's moans and screams of shock and dismay deserve awards (no matter where he delivers them.) The supporting cast is loaded with voices you'll recognize, for good and bad, like Carol Burnett and Will Arnett as the main baddies, and Amy Poehler, Seth Rogen, Jaime Pressly, Isla Fisher and Niecy Nash popping up throughout to add those "isn't that?" moments. Though no particular voice stands out (Arnett comes closest, as one might expect) together they add another layer of enjoyment for those old enough to recognize them.
Inside a foil-covered slipcover that reapeats the cover art is a standard-width keepcase with a tray, holding a two-disc set that features a nice animated, anamorphic widescreen main menu, with options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust languages and check out the special features. Audio options include English DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1, with French and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0, while subtitles are available in English and Spanish, along with closed captioning.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer looks fantastic with some bright, vivid color (especially in the jungle of Nool) and some impressive detail, with the opening shot being one of the most realistic pieces of computer animation I've ever seen. A look at the animated Horton will tell you just how good this video is, as there are such minuscule details in his wrinkled skin, while the many furry characters look terrific. There's nothing worth complaining about here, with no issues with dirt, damage (naturally) or digital artifacts to be found.
The audio utilizes the surround soundfield pretty effectively, putting dialogue center stage, unless the character's position requires a different location, while the strong music and fun sound effects get enhancement from the side and rear speakers. As is often the case, the choice between the DTS and Dolby Digital track is an easy one, with the DTS offering a much more precise, richer delivery of the sound, and a more effective separation between the channels. There's a moment toward the end of the film when a wave of sound travels toward the viewer, and the experience when hearing it in DTS is simply head and shoulders above Dolby Digital.
There is an incredible amount of extras for what could be considered just a kids movie, starting with a new Ice Age short film, starring John Leguizamo's sloth character. Sid takes some younger animals on a camping trip and cause calamity, as expected, in much the same vein as the films. Checking in at under eight minutes, it's an OK short, but it simply wasn't that funny. Perhaps it's because I've never liked the Ice Age art style, but this short just didn't appeal to me.
Up next is a feature-length commentary with co-directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino. They have plenty to share about the film, including lots of details about the thought process behind the designs and concepts in the film, as well as small details they find particularly interesting (like the inclusion of modern things like cell phones and social networking.) Though it's not the most entertaining track I've heard, it's certainly got plenty of info for fans of animation, and none of the dreaded dead space.
Hayward and Martino return to provide a video intro for the deleted scenes, of which there are quite a few, with 13 in all, split between storyboards, rough animations and almost-finished scenes, for over 18 minutes of material in all. The co-directors also provide commentary on this content, discussing why the material was cut, which is key.
For animation junkies, over seven minutes of animation screen tests are available, with an introduction by animation Nick Bruno. The 23 clips are of Horton, the Mayor and the Whos, and show how they were conceptualized, and how their CG structures were tested out before the crew got started. You find out more about that process is the 5:29 "Bringing the Characters to Life," which includes interviews with the animation staff, as they talk about how they worked with their own reference videos to figure out how the "actors" move. Things get even more specific in "That's One Big Elephant: Animating Horton," an eight-minute look at the development of the starring character, which is much like "Bringing," but more Horton-based.
The 3:47 "Meet Katie" focuses on the story of the furry little yak who just steals her scenes in the film, as the creators talk about the development of the character from a background drawing to full-fledged cult hero. She really represents the Seuss mentality that's explored in "Bringing Seuss to Screen," an eight-minute featurette about translating the style of the book to the movie, which is worth a look for fans on both sides of the aisle.
The stars of the show arrive with "The Elephant in the Room: Jim Carrey," 4:54 about the comic actor's involvement with the film, while the 3:41 "A Person is a Person: A Universal Message" features Carrell talking about the film's theme. It's not as much of these two as most would want, but it's nice to see them involved int he extras anyway.
Things go decidedly kid-friendly from here on out, beginning with the relatively easy three-round Simon-like set-top game "We Are Here!" which asks you to repeat the notes played by the Whos. It should be a fun challenge for younger players though. There are two kid-focused featurettes as well, the preachy four-minute "Our Speck: Where Do We Fit In?," which offers a green message about protecting our planet, and the educational "Elephant Fun: The Facts," which spends five minutes talking about real elephants.
Closing out the genuine extras is a DVD-ROM feature, Create Your Own Animation. It's far from the best you've seen, as the flash app lets you choose from a male or female Who body, and then decorate it with different body types, hair, hair, clothing color and accessories, place it in a scene and then have it perform one of three animations. Unfortunately, it didn't keep the choices I made in the final animation, and you can't do anything with that animation, so it's all pretty meaningless. For a little kid though it might be fun.
Things wrap up with a handful of trailers, while the second disc holds only a digital copy of the film.
The Bottom Line
Though the challenge of adapting the classic work of Dr. Seuss to film has tripped up moviemakers before, the efforts of Blue Sky Studio have managed to maintain a level of faithfulness to the material, in look, tone and story. Of course, with almost 90 minutes of movie to fill, and a handful of pages to work from, there had to be a bit of padding, but it is hardly offensive to Seuss loyalists. The disc looks and sounds terrific, and features a surprisingly deep spread of extras, while the movie is likely to appeal mainly to the little viewers, but parents won't find themselves too bored watching alongside.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.