The beautiful, creative souls in Hollywood have once again given us a feast. This time a full, 12-course Seussian repast. As beloved as Dr. Seuss' one-dimensional artwork has always been--his over-the-top, tufted imagination is perfectly suited to computer animation. It's a marriage made in Who-ville. In a sense, Seuss created his own genre: an unmistakable, trademarkable cadence and rhyme pattern, fantastical and enduring stories, and creatures that blend the animal kingdom with the fairy tale kingdom.
Only Horton the elephant (Jim Carrey) can hear the microscopic citizens of Who-ville who live on a speck on a clover. The mantra of "Horton Hears a Who" is: "A person's a person no matter how small." The first thing that jumps into many people's minds is, "Exactly! That's what the pro-life movement is trying to say about the human embryo!" (The speck-clover even kind of looks like a blastocyst.) However, Dr. Seuss was not happy that pro-lifers were exploiting this correlation and threatened legal action.
"Horton" is not only about repecting the dignity of persons (size DOESN'T matter), but also a keen exploration of the fragile dynamics of communication. Horton hears not only because he has big ears, but because he has a big heart. But nobody believes him. The Mayor of Who-ville (who is NOT a boob), voiced by Steve Carell, hears and believes Horton's message that Whoville is endangered, because he's a good mayor who cares about his people and is not seduced from facing dark realities* by frivolous frivolities like the Giant Meatball in the Edible Parade. But nobody believes him. Each must find a way to help the people in their repective worlds become aware of the bigger (or smaller) picture, but their friends urge them both to "keep their story to themselves." Horton and the mayor learn to trust each other (without even seeing each other or seeing what the other sees)--what could be truer communication?
"Horton" is about perspective. In trying to convince the other jungle animals that it's possible for Whoville to exist, Horton poses: "Maybe they're not small, maybe we're big." And to the Mayor, Horton says: "In my world, you're just a speck." Mayor: "In my world, you're just a big voice in the sky."
"Horton" is also about interpretation. Whenever seismic activities disrupt Who-ville (because of bumps in Horton's world), the city council gives a favorable interpretation, fiddling while Rome burns, while the Mayor tries to sound the alarm and offer solutions.
"Horton" is about agendas. A fierce Mother Kangaroo (the gloriously familiar, nasal, overpronouncing, lip-popping Carol Burnett) wants to sheild her son (who's never allowed to come out of her pouch or even speak) and everyone else's child from Horton's "imagination," because "imagination makes children question authority which leads to defiance and defiance leads to anarchy!" This is an apt metaphor for the "non-media literacy" approach to media: control, not communication.
"Horton" is a feel-good-at-a-price masterpiece. What is the price? Horton's outstanding elephant trait is faithfulness. He may be dumb, but he's loyal, even if it costs him everything. "Rescue those...being taken away to death..." (Proverbs 24:11 RSV). While Horton tries to save Who-ville, Who-ville must save Horton. How? By making themselves heard to Horton's world through a thrilling little street chant that becomes a swelling, cosmic (in Who-proportions) orchestral opus: "We are here! We are here! We are here!" that sums up the cry of every embryo, fetus, infant, child, teen, adult and elder in our struggle to be and remain and become. "Horton" is going to make a marvelous musical.
Horton never doubts his own experience: "I heard it, I experienced it." The Kangaroo never doubts her own lack of experience either, but there is very little room for possibility in her positivistic worldview: "If I didn't hear it, smell, it taste it, it doesn't exist!" But even when all of the jungle hears, the Kangaroo refuses to hear.
Both Horton and the Mayor are incredibly likeable chumps. The Mayor, with ninety-six daughters and one son, must take care of life's mundanities in the middle of, literally, saving the world. In one particularly hilarious sequence in which the Mayor is getting a root canal, Horton shakes up Who-ville's speck, the novacaine needle goes into the Mayor's arm instead of his mouth, and the Mayor must carry on with a limp, whip-like appenditure for the day.
"Horton" takes the term "eye candy" to a whole new level--it's not 3-D or full of special effects, but simply old-fashioned imagination taken to the extreme. We want to linger on all the minutiae in Who-ville, but the geniuses at Dreamworks are too modest for that, and we barely get a look at the contraptions, goings-on and whosey-what's-its before we're whisked off to the next scene (kind of like "Monsters, Inc.") Guess we'll have to wait for the DVD.
"Horton" is one of those movies that is bigger than a movie. It is an event. It is a welcome resurgence (if indeed Seuss ever went away) of Seuss-mania. Lots of adults (sans kids) were in my theater. "Horton" is a transport back to the finer things of childhood. My father taught my brother and I how to read using "Hop on Pop" before we went to kindgergarten. I haven't laid eyes on "Horton Hears a Who" for probably thirty-five years, and yet I felt that same old agony when Horton, after going through a field of millions of clovers to find HIS clover, watches his "done" piles blow back over the "to-be-done" clovers.
"Horton" is about individuals and specificity. It's an affirmation of being a "who." (And it feels so good to be reminded of our worth.) This one unique clover, each unique citizen of Who-ville: "the scientist," "Burt in accounting," "the old man in the bathtub." But they are very much a "we," individuals in community, and this tension is the glory of being human. Perhaps this was Seuss' message in all his books all along. (There's a book out there called "The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss" that might shed some light on Seussian anthropology, theology and philosophy.)
*At one point, when the mayor's warnings are being ignored, it made me think of the PBS production on John Paul II: "Pope of the Millennium," where the secular makers of the documentary sum up JPII's "most important work" as being "The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae)." They mention his coining of the phrase "culture of death" and ask "are we missing something here?" quite sincerely not comprehending its meaning. I would say that "Theology of the Body" is the Pope's greatest work, which tells us if we unnaturally split body and spirit (another name for "death"), we get the "culture of death." Lies about the body cause us to lie with our bodies, and the Theology of the Body is the truth-worldview-remedy.