Like most parents this weekend, I saw HORTON HEARS A WHO. I didn't hate it, like I thought I was going after seeing the trailer. Ultimately, it’s an interesting but flawed movie, which prevented it from being great.
We’ve been reading a lot of Dr. Seuss around my house these days. The good doctor’s stories are whimsical and charming, which is how they’ve managed to stay relevant for generations. “Horton” is a fascinating story that presents some very complex ideas very simply. And the movie version did, to some extent, attempt to do the same thing—but as you’ve no doubt seen from the commercials, it’s been modernized for today’s audiences. And therein lies the problem.
Just about every animated movie these days (Pixar movies excepted) relies heavily on pop culture references in order to “speak” to the audience. It’s what “Shrek” hath wrought. If it worked for the great green ogre, it’ll work everywhere else too. But do I need a reference to “Apocalypse Now” in a Dr. Seuss movie? How about a parody of bad anime? MySpace? Aside from being incredibly stale, these jokes reek of laziness. Can’t figure out how to end the movie? Let’s have a musical number where the entire cast busts out some REO Speedwagon. (I wish I were kidding about this.)
I wish that the filmmakers and studios trusted the audience a bit more. If generation after generation of us are reading the books, than why can’t a movie adaptation be more faithful to the tone and spirit of its source material? Why can’t we have a timeless Horton movie instead of one that’s going to feel dated in 5 years? There are no Clint Eastwood impressions in a Dr. Seuss book because Clint Eastwood doesn’t exist in the Seuss world. So why should he in a movie version?
It’s easy to see how they could have updated the story of Horton and made it relevant without using gimmicks. There were some very smart touches to the movie that made comment on today without hitting us over the head about it. I couldn’t help but to think of Al Gore while watching the Mayor of Who-ville try to tell everyone that the world was in grave danger. And how the kangaroo’s attempt to suppress Horton’s new ideology felt startlingly similar to the religious zealots in our country. I loved where they were going with JoJo and his strained relationship to his father. But all of Jim Carrey’s impressions, the references and the modern slang clashed with these good ideas and pulled me out of the movie every time.
As my kids grow up, we’re all going to be exposed to more and more “family” entertainment. My one big wish to the powers that be in Hollywood is to stop working so hard to talk down to us. Focus on telling good stories and you can leave out all of the bells and whistles. I promise that we’ll show up to see them.