Horton Hears a Who!, an animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss' 1954 picture-book classic, has one of the more captivating openings in recent memory: A gumball drops from a tree, rolls across the ground, and lands in a patch of dandelions, sending white tufts skyward. The images fill the screen, and at first, the rolling gumball evokes Raiders of the Lost Ark. Happily, the reference — perhaps unintentional — is fleeting. The imagery is about nothing more than itself, and even before its function in the film's plot is clear, it's liable to engage pipsqueak viewers who see the wonder in gumballs and dandelions daily and provoke nostalgic recognition in parents who remember such mundane items as talismans of childhood outdoor play.
From that point on, Horton Hears a Who! enters a fantasy world, but it mostly matches the opening scene's sense of engagement. For those who don't remember the book on which the film is based or haven't read it recently to their own children, the film concerns Horton, a gentle elephant living in the jungle of Nool, whose giant ears one day hear a tiny cry emanating from a speck of dust floating by. Horton captures this speck on a flower and becomes convinced there are microscopic creatures living there, in peril, and must be protected. Other creatures in the jungle scoff at this assertion, but Horton is steadfast in sticking to his mission and his mantra: that "people are people, no matter what size."
It turns out Horton is right. The speck of dust houses the tiny, fantastical city of Whoville and its happy, unsuspecting citizens, the Whos.
In marshalling this familiar material to the screen, the makers of Horton Hears a Who! have crafted a superlative kids' movie, one that happily eschews the self-conscious cleverness and pandering pop-culture references that mar popular kids' movies of the Shrek variety. Instead, this film deeply respects its source material and the connection it has to generations of children.
The elastic, colorful computer-generated animation is rooted in the look of the original text, and the film gets a surprisingly, pleasingly reserved lead performance from Jim Carrey as the voice of Horton. The story from the picture book is expanded smartly, giving Horton a more direct relationship with the mayor of Whoville, which juxtaposes their respective difficulties in persuading their world about the existence of the other.
One word of minor warning: There are a few perilous moments that may be mildly troubling to sensitive younger children.
Horton Hears a Who!
Opening Friday, March 14th