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Cinema in Focus: ‘Horton Hears a Who!’

Dr. Seuss favorite is simple reminder that there's always life before us.

3 Stars — Wholesome

Opening a child’s imagination to the possibilities of life is the responsibility not only of artists but of all of us. True to this goal, Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote intriguing children’s stories under the name of Dr. Seuss. In 1954, he wrote a second book about a lovable elephant named Horton, Horton Hears a Who! Bringing this tale to the screen are directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, whose collective experience includes animation and art direction on such films as Finding Nemo and Robots.

The theme of Horton Hears a Who! is the simple truth that “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” This observation is central not only in proclaiming the worth of every individual but in opening the reader’s mind to the possibility of worlds much smaller, or even much larger, than our own. This is also an idea that is played with in both of the Men in Black science-fiction films.

The Horton story begins “On the fifteenth of May in the jungle of Nool, in the heat of the day in the cool of the pool,” when Horton’s large ears allow him to hear someone speaking on a speck of dust. Convinced of what he heard, Horton follows the flower on which the speck rests as the wind blows it through the jungle. Securing the flower with his trunk, Horton (voice of Jim Carrey) discovers the speck is a planet in which the Whos have lived in exquisite joy and peace for more than 100 years. Horton makes contact with the Mayor (voice of Steve Carell) of Who-ville, who has already realized his small world has become dislodged from its secure foundation.

The tension in the story comes in several subplots. Not only is the reader invited to imagine a world so small that it could live on a speck of dust and yet its inhabitants have value no matter how small, but there is also an antagonist: Sour Kangaroo (voice by Carol Burnett). A self-proclaimed queen of the jungle who won’t allow her pouch-schooled son to learn from Horton or play with other children, she also proclaims that the only thing real is what you can see and hear — which leads her to decide there are no such things as Whos. When Horton rejects her attempt to silence him, she enlists others in her campaign to do so.

This tension between the Kangaroo and Horton also extends to her own son as he struggles against her opinionated control. This parent-child tension is also seen in the Mayor’s relationship with his only son, JoJo (voice by Jesse McCartney), whose 95 sisters don’t have the pressure to follow in their father’s footsteps and become Mayor of the village, like all his ancestors before him.

The solutions to all of these tensions are given with insight and humor, which makes this animated film a joy. That it tells the truth about the value of humans and our tendency to not believe the various possibilities of life is a tale all of us — of all ages — need to hear.

Discussion:

• Since the book was written two months after the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, some believe that Kangaroo’s attempt to silence Horton is a reference to this historical moment. Do you believe this is true or that this desire to silence people who disagree with our opinion is a tendency in all of humanity?

• Some in the pro-life movement have picked up the phrase “A person’s a person, no matter how small” as a way to protect small humans still in the womb. Do you believe this applies? Why or why not?

• Other villains in this tale are Vlad the Buzzard (voice by Will Arnett) and Councilman Yummo Wickersham (voice by Dan Fogler). Do you think they are believable villains? Why or why not?

Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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