Throughout most of his life, Dr. Seuss kept a tight rein over the rights to his material and for good reason: The economy, language, poetry, and themes in his children's books could only be tarnished by the expansive necessities of adaptation. Chuck Jones' beloved half-hour animated version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas! (which Seuss approved) notwithstanding, the author must have known that the task of converting his 10-minute bedtime stories into feature films would spoil their fragile magic. Even so, he must have been turning cartwheels in his grave over the live-action versions of Grinch and The Cat In The Hat, which turned his wondrous universe into grotesque playgrounds for improvisational riffing. The new version of Horton Hears A Who! is a little more palatable, mainly because the animated form at least preserves the look of Seuss' illustrations. But the same problem remains: When you make an 86-minute feature out of a 10-minute story, how do you fill in the gaps?
For Horton, the solution is more kid-friendly riffing, which means puns by the pound and other lame wordplay (like a conservative kangaroo that "pouch-schools" her kid), as well as a brief Kissinger impersonation that's sure to have 6-year-olds cackling in recognition. Toning down his antics considerably from the live-action Grinch, Jim Carrey voices Horton, an elephant who discovers an entire planet on a speck of dust floating through the air. Within this speck is the city of Who-ville, a happy, peaceful little community led by a mayor (Steve Carell) who isn't accustomed to dealing with crisis. Horton and the Mayor become friends, but when evil, imagination-hating forces threaten to crush Horton's speck, it's up to him to save Who-ville from obliteration.
Though loaded with the noise and clutter that seem to dog all studio animation not involving Pixar or Aardman, Horton Hears A Who! does manage to get across Seuss' themes about protecting the little guy and encouraging the young to dream of worlds beyond their own. And despite a preponderance of second-rate gags, the tone isn't quite as manic as other Seuss adaptations, and more in keeping with the harmless likes of Ice Age and other Fox Animation fare. But just because the live-action Seusses have dialed down expectations doesn't mean that Horton shouldn't aspire to more than time-wasting mediocrity. There are precious childhoods at stake here.