The Passion of the Horton
Aghast is the word. It’s not a word that should be applicable to anything Seussical. But this is what I felt as I stumbled from my Saturday morning screening of Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! and immediately hied myself to a bookstore to pick up a copy of the Ted Geisel children’s book upon which this is based. Because I could not imagine that the gist of what was up on the screen was actually present in the book. I mean, I’d read it as a kid, but, you know, kids don’t pick up on subtext, and maybe there was something I’d missed as a tyke.
But no. I didn’t miss anything. If there’s any “agenda” at all to Geisel’s book, about a kindly elephant who learns of very, very tiny people living on a speck of pollen and devotes himself to getting them to safety even as his fellow jungle residents scoff at him — hearing voices? tiny people? *snort* — then it is merely this: It is its own reward to be nice to people, even if they don’t look like you. Stretch it all some more, and maybe Geisel, writing in the 1950s, was creating an extremely heavily veiled parable about racism. Maybe.
And what has Hollywood done with this gentle plea for tolerance? It has been turned into something that looks astonishingly like far-right propaganda about how Christians are a persecuted minority — as if this were 100AD in the Roman Empire — and loudmouthed atheists are ruining everything. I know the movie industry is supposed to be full of evil liberals out to kill God and everything decent in the world, but there honestly doesn’t seem to be any other way to interpret the ham-fisted and weirdly confused allegory about conformity — it’s both good and bad! — and principle.
Would that that were a joke. But what’s really insidious here is that the script — by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, who also wrote Bubble Boy and the new College Road Trip, which proves that there is no sin you can commit that will cause Hollywood to shun you — follows the story of the book pretty closely. It’s in how they flesh out a brief picture book into a feature-length film that the weird ickiness comes, in all those little — and some not so little — extrapolations that expand it. The titular elephant (voiced by Jim Carrey [The Number 23, Fun with Dick & Jane], who manages to refrain from the excessive and distracting Jim Carrey-ness that often mars his performances) is far more besieged by the creatures of the jungle here, led by the harpyish Kangaroo (the voice of Carol Burnett: The Trumpet of the Swan), who goes on a rampage of indignation over Horton’s attention to the speck. Daurio and Paul’s escalation of Kangaroo could have retained her mocking of Horton while still going in any one of several different directions, but where they take her is into an unpleasant parody of atheists. “If you can’t see it, hear it, or feel it, it doesn’t exist,” Kangaroo rages — something she does not come anywhere near saying in the book, and something that is a strawman characterization of secular religious nonbelief. (No atheist would deny the existence of, say, neutrons.) “Horton is a menace” is Kangaroo’s justification for her attempts to squash the pachyderm, a “sick” influence on the children of the jungle. Except he isn’t, as far as we can see — he’s not, for instance, advocating that the speck theory of creation be taught in the public schools of the jungle. But Kangaroo is the villain — she’s the unreasonable one here. If the screenwriters really wanted to demonize her, they could have simply renamed her Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
But that’s all as nothing when your jaw drops to see how far the movie goes in inventing more story on the speck side of things, in the tiny world of Whoville, where the dimbulb Mayor (the voice of Steve Carell: Dan in Real Life, Evan Almighty) is the only one who can hear Horton. He runs around the curlicue city — it’s really a shame that the tone and attitude of the film is so vile, because the animation really is gorgeous — yelling that the sky is falling but that the big invisible voice in the heavens will save them all if only everyone listens to him. Did I mention the big dubyas– I mean, Ws all over the place, like in the Mayor’s office? True, the Mayor is an idiot — “I’ve been called a boob, several times,” he says without, apparently, any regret — but his people are even dumber, barely noticing all the upheavals to their world (like the fact that the sky shifts, in mere seconds, from day to night, day to night, as Horton shades and unshades the speck with his ear). And they will only be saved once they accept that the Mayor has a direct line to God– I mean, Horton, and because of that hotline, the Mayor, and the Mayor alone, has an understanding of the threat facing all of Whoville. Before that happens, though, the Mayor comes under scoffing, too: “You’re finished,” a councilman tells him. “No one believes you. No one supports you.” Will the people of Whoville stand by their belief in democracy even if it means they’re doomed? Or will they come to their senses and accept that the Mayor knows what’s best for them, even if he is an idiot?
Needless to say, none of this is hinted at in the book, either.
Perhaps the worst thing, from the perspective of someone who doesn’t want to see reason so utterly turned on its head like this, is that if you argue with the film, you invariably end up sounding like Kangaroo, because the way this sweet story has been adapted leaves no room for anything else. Geisel’s book was ambiguous enough in its essence that it can be, and has been, appropriated by people all over the political and philosophical spectrum. (Antiabortionists, for instance, love that “a person is a person, no matter how small” line.) But this movie, in its attempt to expand on the book, instead diminishes it, reduces it to something that cannot be seen except in one narrow sense. It has taken a timeless work and turned it into a cheap artifact of this immediate moment. We’ll still be reading Dr. Seuss a century from now, but this desecration of him will be long forgotten.