Monday, February 16, 2009

Horton Hears a Who! (2008)

For about two and a half minutes, 20th Century Fox's Horton Hears a Who! is just sublime.

The color palette is perfect, resurrecting memories from books you had forgotten you had. The shapes of flowers, hills and trees, has the simple but identifiable style of the illustrations from Dr. Seuss. There is movement, and it is almost as though life has been breathed into memory, simultaneously feeding and drawing from the imagination.

It is the perfect embodiment of a childhood classic only...more.

And then Horton opens his mouth and Jim Carrey's voice comes out...

No, stop. Wait. This isn't about Jim Carrey; really it isn't. Go back. Restart.

There are, so I always thought before watching Horton Hears a Who! two types of viewers for films based on literary texts that are not just popular but beloved. There are those who have a passionate pre-attachment to the material, who know not just the name of every shop in Daigon Alley but could draw you a floor plan down to what's in the display windows and those who view the first group as somewhat daft. Members of that second group might be diverse; they can include those who say, "Liked it, just wasn't obsessive about it" and those who say, "Well, didn't care for it, but the movie might be okay." For the purposes of our consideration--how they will respond to the film, what expectations they have, how their judgments shall be formed--I always assumed there were only two categories: zealots and everyone else.

Nor is this division meant to be limited to Harry Potter or children's literature.

It is the difference between those who have actually read Nick Hornby's 1992 autobiographical novel Fever Pitch and those who think there really is no substantive difference to speak of between obsessive baseball fans and obsessive soccer fans. (Or between those who say "soccer" and those who say "football.")

It is the difference between those who take a "Which Jane Austen Character are You?" quiz on the Internet and say, "Marianne Dashwood! No way!" and those who think Keira Knightley has a "good enough" English accent.

If you want to know which type of viewer you are, take the following quiz. Imagine watching Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring (or try to think back to the first time you saw it). Imagine, instead of an invisible Frodo taking off in a boat and leaving Aragorn (son of Arathorn) to either go after him after Frod has made his choice or to honor that choice, that you have a visible Frodo actually meet Aragorn and explain his going away alone to him. Now imagine Aragorn saying, "Okay."

If your response was:
a) close enough;
b) never read it, what the hell are you talking about?; or
c) hmm, that's not the way I envisaged Aragorn

go to the left.

If your response was:
d) WTF?!?!

go to the right.

Now here's my point as it relates to Horton Hears a Who! I had always just assumed that the difference between those on the right side of the room and those on the left was a passionate attachment to the source material. That the difference between those who cared how the dynamics of the Edmund-Peter relationship were altered in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe were those deeply invested in the book to begin with.

Part of that assumption was challenged many years ago by my friend Donald T. Williams who argued (somewhat persuasively, I thought) that those of us (like me) who grew up reading or studying primarily novels tended to look at films at the visual representation of the book and judge them based on the extent to which they were faithful to our understanding of what the book was. Those who had spent a significant amount of critical work in and around drama, tended to to look at films the way they looked at stage productions of Hamlet or King Lear--interesting for how they interpreted the work, what they did differently, and where they fell short.

Don, and those like him, would, I think, be the ideal audience for Horton Hears a Who! At the very least, he would be a better audience than I, because this film lost me two minutes in for one very simple reason.


The strange thing for me, of course, is that, I didn't really have an emotional attachment to the source material. I didn't, so I thought, have a concept of who Horton was or what Horton did (other than the things he said and did in the book). It wasn't as though the film violated some sacrosanct image from childhood. As elephants with messianic complexions go, the film's Horton seems nice enough, even wedded with a pro-faith sort of message that will appeal to the least thoughtful (and usually most dogmatic) sort of Christian viewer who is usually anti-movies in the first place. Granted, that viewer will then be lost in the next ten minutes by gratuitous stereotypes of fundamentalist kangaroos who somehow symbolize both empirical materialism AND religious cultural paranoia, but, still, on the whole, the elephant is a nice elephant is what I'm saying. And in the book, Horton was nice. And he was an elephant, and he did hear a who.

What he wasn't in the book was, well Jim Carrey. This is not meant to be a knock on Jim Carrey, who I like well enough. It's just that ever since Robin Williams did Aladdin, voice talent in animated films has been less about asking actors to act and more about adopting and integrating their personas into the characters. As such, it isn't so much that Jim Carrey is a bad actor who can't play Horton, it's that Jim Carrey isn't Horton. Or, more accurately, Horton isn't Jim Carrey.

I could, I suppose, if I wanted to beat a dead elephant here, enumerate all the ways in which Carrey's persona is at odds with Horton's. Let me settle for one. Carrey is the child of a postmodern age and as a result has a layer of self-mockery and inbred irony in his very model of speech. Horton is, above all, simple and sincere. Carrey has a stand-up's comedic sensibility, which is all about drawing the viewer in, gaining his sympathy. His goofiness can do "gee whiz" and "well golley" in a Gomer Pyle sort of way (now there would be a good Carrey role) but it doesn't lend itself real well to genuine wonder, because wonder is based on awe and the comic (Robin Williams is the same way) will always be sacrificing genuine wonder for wry bemusement or sarcastic, deflating, hilarity. This doesn't--I can't say this enough--make Carrey a "bad" actor. It just means he isn't particularly suited for certain roles. I had the same response when I saw Anthony Hopkins play Othello. It's hard to picture the epitome of British reserve and manners as a raging moor. An animated version of the play that sought to encapsulate not who the character is but who the actor is--which is what all animated performances do these days--would create an Othello that was not bad per se, but was unrecognizable. It would be like Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock playing Hamlet.

No, what we're dealing with here is not a lack of fidelity to the source material. Rather Horton Hears a Who! is a reinvention. It is closer to what is currently called a "reboot" than an adaptation. And, no, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, either. Some reboots (Batman Begins; Casino Royale) are good at salvaging familiar elements from conventional works and giving them new life with a new context. Others (I'm looking at you Superman Returns) fail precisely because their inability to decide whether they are new or old means that there is something arbitrary about what is kept and what is dismissed and the new thing becomes a pastiche of elements that don't necessarily work together.

Horton Hears a Who! is just such a pastiche. It is hopelessly long. (I understand the economics of a film versus a television special, but to make it 80 minutes, it is just stretched by taking all the things that are not intrinsic to the story and increasing them, making the things that make it Horton Hears a Who! feel as though they are afterthoughts in their own story.) We've got elements that would be pleasant enough in other venues: Carrey's mugging, Carrell's Office persona and inept leadership skills, Seth Rogen's overgrown childishness tempered with good will (that worked so well in Knocked Up and seems so out of place here), the substantial amount of good will engendered by the very name of Carol Burnett. Put them all in a blender, mix with some iconic art design and you get...visions of a pregnant Katherine Heigel watching porn when you should be thinking about furry characters? Meandering thoughts about whether or not if Horton could hire Ace Ventura, would the tone of the film be any different? Narrative down time (also known as filler) scanning the Whovville golf courses in case Tim Conway were to make a special appearance as a Seussian Dorf?

I didn't have, to my knowledge, an emotional investment in the way Horton Hears a Who! should be. My blanching has nothing to do with what I thought this movie should have been. If my flat, dispassionate, critical voice says that a film closer to the text (in length and tone) would have been better, it is not the voice of protest or even disappointment so much as it is the impulse of one who instinctively looks for ways to fix what his eyes and ears tell him is broken even if his heart feels a bit like a grinch for saying so.


peter said...

"It would be like Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock playing Hamlet."

Oh man. I would pay a lot of money to see that production.

Erik said...

Nicely done. You not only (as noted on your Tweet) got to write about fundie 'roos, but you managed to take Horton Hears a Who and write a magnificently literate review of it. :) And the last line is perfect - pure poetry.