Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who

It’s been five years since last we had one of Dr. Seuss’s most popular books turned into a feature film (and yes, I am sorry for reminding you of 2003’s Mike Myers catastrophe The Cat in the Hat), so it seems we were due. Despite the fact that the reviews have pegged this year’s Jim Carrey-fied CGI remake of Horton Hears a Who! as actually not that bad, perhaps the most beneficial side effect of these movies’ releases is the fact that they draw attention to the original material from which they were derived. Finding a new audience for Dr. Seuss’s books can only be a good thing, and uncovering the original, classic animated features spawned from those books is almost as fun.

Horton Hears a Who! is, indeed, a classic. It’s one of the Dr. Seuss features that sticks very, very closely to Seuss’s original material, a probable result of the production credit attributed to Ted Geisel, not to mention the popularity of Chuck Jones’ previous Seuss adaptation, that of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The narrator-heavy, storybook quality to the feature lends an air of timelessness to the story — well-done or not, the CGI animation is destined to date the recent film — and the lessons hidden within the story are only enhanced by this particular version of it.

You know the lessons: “A person is a person, no matter how small” is perhaps the most famous, and it’s an appropriately universal lesson despite the attempted co-option of it for the pro-life agenda. It’s actually more of a lesson in democracy and in open-mindedness, that if enough “little” people speak up, then eventually the “big” people have to listen. Despite the implication that a “big” champion is necessary, it was and is a comforting lesson in eras marked by the distrust of and distaste for government and politics.

Hidden within the tale as well, however, are also lessons decrying the “wisdom” of the masses (a lesson potentially extrapolated into an indictment of the influence of the media), and there might even be a shot or three at the death penalty hidden in there. Whether or not you agree with the lessons, the grace with which they’re integrated into a tale of a benevolent elephant and his talkative dust speck is quite admirable.

This latest DVD iteration of Horton’s tale is, actually, an impressive collection of Seuss’s fables, in which he hid morals amongst fantastical tales of talking animals and nonsensical contraptions. “Horton Hatches the Egg”, the first, less famous adventure featuring our talking elephant, is a wonderful little lesson in perseverance and responsibility in the face of ridicule. “Daisy-Head Maysie” is a slapstick take on “be yourself”. And then there’s “The Butter Battle Book”, perhaps Seuss’s most pointed parable, a take on the Cold War arms race that horrified this author as a child whose parents dared to tell him what the tale of bigger, crazier guns and differing philosophies was really about.

Even with the Cold War supposedly behind us, “The Butter Battle Book” continues to strike a chord, and Ralph Bakshi, as could be expected, emphasizes the darkness of the plot in his skittery, ink-heavy animation style. The non-ending of it is particularly unsettling for children used to easy endings and Hollywood resolutions, and if anything, the effect of that ending has only been enhanced by a populace increasingly unwilling to challenge or offend.

Just as unsettling, though for less noble reasons, is the suicide humor (albeit delivered by a fish) tossed randomly into “Horton Hatches the Egg”, a cartoon that as a whole is the least faithful of all the adaptations on the DVD — while the gag of following “now I’ve seen everything!” with blowing your own brains out was a common one in World War II-era entertainment, it’s a pretty uncomfortable bit, even as a throwaway, in 2008. In an archival sense, though, it seems appropriate to have left it in unscathed, even if parents might have to have an uncomfortable conversation or two with their children.

The DVD even contains the oft-forgotten “In Search of Dr. Seuss”, a full 90-minute film which is basically a series of set-pieces linking a whole bunch of Seuss’s stories together into something approximating a coherent narrative. Most interestingly, it actually incorporates some of the good Doctor’s early documentary work which, despite the helplessly cheesy and dated shell it resides in, will be enlightening to any fan of Seuss’s who thought that he was only ever about children’s books.

For now, however, the day belongs to Horton — he has the big movie, and it’s his name that will sell far more DVDs than any other in this collection. Even if it were called “The Dr. Seuss Collection” or something equally mundane, however, it would be “Horton Hears a Who!” that would steal the show, as far and away the most accomplished, polished, and watchable narrative of all the fables presented on the DVD that bears its name. Everything else that appears on the release is simply icing on the cake, and really, how can you possibly argue with this much icing?

RATING 8 / 10