Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who (2008)

Rated G. Our ratings: V- 2; L-0 ; S/N -0. Running time: 1 hour 28 min.

With my mouth I will give great thanks to the LORD;
I will praise him in the midst of the throng.
For he stands at the right hand of the needy,
to save them from those who would condemn them to death.
Psalm 109:30-31

Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.
Let all that you do be done in love.
1 Corinthians 16:13-14

Horton is badgered by Kanngaroo over his belief in something she cannot see.

2008 20th Century Fox Animation

They finally got it right on the third attempt to translate a short little book of the beloved Dr. Seuss, a.k.a. Theodore Geisel. The good Doctor’s stories with their captivating rhymes are ever so slight in length, so the temptation for the adaptor is to fill in too much to make a feature length film. Unlike those who made How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio knew when to quit, successfully blending their dialogue with the text of the original. The computer generated animation skillfully brings Theodore Geisel’s illustrations to life. The additional material is in the form of some extended action sequences and crazy slap stick that children and adults will enjoy. The voice talent is excellent, with CBS newsman Charles Osgood, serving as narrator, effectively catching the spirit of Dr. Seuss’s poetry.

Horton is the friendly elephant who lives in the jungle of Nool with his mouse buddy Morton (Seth Rogen). One day while enjoying the day he thinks he hears a cry from a speck of dust floating by. Not sure at first, he takes notice when he hears it again. It turns out that there is a planet in the dust mote, and that the voice is a cry for help from the Mayor (Steve Carell) of a tiny city called Who-ville. The city is in danger of being destroyed because the dust mote has been dislodged from its mooring and drifting about. Kind-hearted Horton promises that he will provide protection.

However, both the Mayor and Horton face opposition from skeptics who do not believe them. Horton’s opposition is by far the more dangerous because it is lead by Kanngaroo (delightfully voiced by Carol Burnett) who assumes the moral leadership of Nool. When Theodore Geisel wrote his story in 1954 he knew full well that parents enjoyed his books as much as their children, so most critics believe that his depiction of Kanngaroo was a criticism of witch-hunter Sen. Joseph McCarthy who was so convinced that Communists were lurking everywhere bent on destroying America that he was willing to use undemocratic means of fighting them. (Another cartoonist of the time engaged in a similar anti-McCarthy battle was Walt Kelly who introduced into his Pogo strip Sen. Malarkey, a wolverine with the senator’s features—and tactic of character assassination.) Kanngaroo is updated a bit for our time in her declaration, “My kid is pouch-schooled” —which might earn the film the wrath of the right-wing crowd, although the kids in the audience will take no notice of this.

Kanngaroo is upset that Horton insists that he has heard the voice, when no one else can, no matter how close they place their ears to the flower on which the mote of dust rests. She is worried about the effect upon the children of Horton’s making such an outlandish claim, so, aided by the menacing looking eagle Vlad (Will Arnett), she stirs up the denizens of Noll, especially the apes and monkeys, to attack Horton. Like the heretics of old, he is given the chance to recant before being boiled in a pot of oil, but he “stands firm in (his) faith.” In Who-ville people also disbelieve the Mayor, but they do not assault him so viciously. Can he convince them not only that Horton exists, and if so, how can he and the Whos prove to Horton’s attackers that they exist?

It is so good to find another film that adults can enjoy with children—though a word of warning for parents of preschool children: Vlad is a very fearsome creature, and the scene in which Horton is threatened with death because of his belief will also be scary for the young.

For Reflection/Discussion

Note: These questions are directed at adults, in the hope that after reflection they will come up with more simply worded ones for children. This is a charming visual parable offering a good opportunity for adults to explore gospel themes with children–but please do avoid any hint of a didactictic approach that would spoil the fun of the film.

1) What other Dr. Seuss books have you read? What do you find appealing in them? What do you think children enjoy so much in them? Their word play? Interesting characters?

2) In this and other Dr. Seuss stories (especially How the Grinch Stole Christmas) what do you see inserted that shows that the good Doctor was addressing parents and other childcare givers as well as children? What do you think is the main theme of this story?

3) How is Horton’s role in protecting Who-ville similar to the way in which the psalmist viewed God?

3) Do you see in Kanngaroo’s refusal to believe in what she cannot see any similarity to that of those who refuse to believe in God? What other examples of narrow-mindedness do you see in our society?

4)How is Horton’s “standing firm” in his conviction similar to that of such prophets as Amos or Jeremiah? How is what happens to him a taking up of the cross? Do you think this can happen in our society? Any examples come to mind? (Such as the fate of Martin Luther King. Jr. or Malcolm X?)

5) What meaning(s) do you see in Horton’s saying, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” How is this similar to Fred Roger’s approach to children, and his affirmation, “I like you just the way you are” ? How can this be seen as a statement of grace? Compare it to how Jesus reacted when the disciples tried to keep the children away from him. (See Mark 10:13-14)

6) To see how the themes of narrow-mindedness and community intolerance, see the 1998 film Pleasantville. (Reviewed in the Dec. 1998 issue of VP)