A person's a person, no matter how small," goes the famous refrain in Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who!" - and as a pro-child, pro-nature, pro-something statement it proves just as loaded now, in a lively, heartfelt animated romp starring Jim Carrey, as it did 50-odd years ago.
The phrase could mean, simply, "Kids are people, too." After all, the late Theodore Seuss Geisel wrote the 1954 book about a hero-heretic elephant who protects the microscopic world of Who-Ville from a jungle of nonbelievers with small people in mind. No 5-year-old could miss the insinuation.
On the other hand, "small" could mean REALLY small. Alone among his jungle-beast brethren, Horton reveres the natural world and its terrific ecological complexity - manifested, in the story, as a culture of gadget-loving, monkey-ish beings who live on a speck of dust. Maybe, microbes are people, too?
Geisel couldn't have anticipated the phrase being co-opted by the pro-life movement, but that's also been the case; why else would activists crash the recent Hollywood premiere of "Horton," if not to assert their right over the slogan? (According to Geisel biographer Philip Nel, the author once threatened to sue a pro-life group for using the phrase.)
All of which explains why "Horton," not one of Geisel's most commercially successful books, managed to find its way to the big screen, alongside the exuberantly overproduced "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (2000) and the downright lamentable "The Cat in the Hat" (2003): It has a wide-open humanism that pops on myriad levels.
Of course, first-time directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino and screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul ("College Road Trip") have added a few embellishments for modern audiences. Unlike Dr. Seuss' Horton, this one does impersonations of politicians and celebrities and comes off more as a spazzy dreamer than a slow-and-steady pachyderm. Carrey doesn't unsheathe his best work or anything - without the use of his greatest comic asset, his seemingly rubber-made face, how could he? - but Horton still comes across lovably.
Animation-wise, the movie also marks a not-so-subtle departure from the book. The computer-generated characters are much more rounded and dimensional than the pen-and-ink "Horton" players of past (almost like the clay-mation of "Wallace and Gromit") and frequently subject to the filmmakers' clever whims (in one amusing sequence, Horton imagines himself an anime-style warrior from a "Pokemon" cartoon).
More traditionally, the Who-Ville of "Horton" is a delightfully warped thing; full of gears and pulleys and servo-driven supper tables that let the family-oriented Mayor (Steve Carell from "The 40-Year-Old Virgin") spend face time with each of his 90 daughters (and one, glum, goth-looking son). And the casting is good: Will Arnett ("Blades of Glory") makes "vor virst-rate villainy" as the winged assassin Vlad, and Carol Burnett imparts a nice hint of tenderness beneath the maternal tyranny of Jane Kangaroo, the hidebound mob leader who brands Horton a heretic and decries his influence on "the children." With the change-fearing, isn't it ALWAYS about the children?
Essentially, "Horton" is a life-or-death buddy movie that unites one character (Horton) who unfashionably champions philosophy with another (the Mayor) who unfashionably champions God. In doing so, the movie meaningfully explores the hazy intersection between heretic and saint, visionary and crackpot. As any 5-year-old knows, they're often one and the same.
'Horton Hears a Who!'
Cast: Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, Seth Rogen
Behind the scenes: Directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, from a script by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul
Rated: G (all audiences), 88 minutes