March 15, 2008 -- There was something very familiar about seeing “Horton Hears a Who” at the theater the other day. When Horton said, “An Elephant is faithful, 100 percent,” I knew I'd heard that before. It turns out there was a 26-minute made-for-TV version that came out in 1970 with a much better pedigree. It was directed by the legendary Chuck Jones and written by the legendary Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) himself, adapted from his own book of the same name. The new version lacks that royal pedigree, and it has been stretched out too much to 88 minutes, but the animation is beautiful and the story's nice message of tolerance booms across loud and clear.
I was somewhat distracted when I saw this. No matter where I put my feet, the kid in the seat in front of me kept kicking my feet. Somehow, he had wedged himself between the seat cushion and the back of the seat so even though he was facing forward, his legs and feet extended a couple of feet behind his chair. I could avoid his feet only by tucking my own long legs back under my own chair. I had never seen anybody do this before. This kind of strange contortion is only possible if one is very tiny, very thin and very flexible. Lucky me. Anyway, when not looking for a safe place to hide my own feet, I noticed that “Horton Hears a Who” is really not much of a kids movie, judging by those restless feet. I heard the kids in the audience laugh once during a gag where a mean vulture gets catapulted, Wiley Coyote style, into a mountain. It is a nice enough movie, but doesn't really have enough for kids to laugh at. It is aimed more at adults.
Horton, the elephant, hears a tiny voice coming from a tiny speck. After a lot of trouble, he finally catches the speck on a flower. Because of his fantastic hearing, he is able to hear the amplified voice of the Mayor of Whoville, who, along with all the other residents of Whoville, live on this tiny speck. Horton offers to help them out by finding a home for the speck atop a tall mountain where it will not be disturbed and the residents of Whoville can live in peace. The rest of the film is taken up with Horton's perilous journey to the remote mountain and his feud with an influential kangaroo, who is convinced that Horton's belief in tiny worlds is a threat to society as a whole. She manages to stir up all the jungle residents against Horton and put him in jail for his beliefs.
Horton vows to protect Whoville, saying “A person is a person, no matter how small.” This phrase has been seized upon by anti-abortion activists as something that supports their views, even though Dr. Seuss himself did not agree with them. The trouble with this is that anti-abortion activists behave a lot more like the Kangaroo than Horton. They have been known to kill abortionists and would like nothing more than to set up their own Kangaroo Courts to legalize throwing abortionists and their clients into jail, or even putting them to death. That is very un-Horton like. Horton is a gentle soul if there ever was one. He is a live-and-let-live kind of elephant.
The movie gets its message across very well. The main message is that just because the Kangaroo can't see, touch, smell or hear the people of Whoville, that doesn't mean they don't exist. The Kangaroo represents a kind of repressive conservative orthodoxy, the kind of closed belief system that forced Copernicus to recant, and the kind that denies the theory of evolution, and the extreme age of the earth and the universe. It is not enough that the Kangaroo doesn't believe Horton. She has deluded herself into the belief that Horton is a threat. She is willing to physically harm him, even kill him, for the beliefs he holds. Those on the religious right don't want to read too much into “Horton Hears a Who.” It is definitely a story that cuts both ways. This film rates a B.
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