Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A few thoughts on Horton Hears a Who

“I’m too close to this movie,” admits [supervising animation director Michael] Thurmeier. “When we are working on a film, we have no perspective of how it will be perceived. We concentrate a lot on how it looks and how the characters move.” (from an AWN-interview)

This is the first of a few posts on Blue Sky’s Horton Hears a Who. I wanted to write about this movie for quite some time. Although constant hyperactivity couldn’t prevent me from noticing its tedious storytelling suffering from old jokes and disparate influences I still enjoyed a lot of the animation. So the latest Horton is worthy of closer analysis due the work of Blue Sky’s rigging and animation team. After some thoughts on narrative aspects (Part I) I will have a closer look at animation related stuff in future posts.

So here is…

Part I: An Elephant’s Faithful One Hundred Percent – or: there is nothing left to the imagination

Although its message of tolerance and sense of community is timeless, Dr. Seuss’ children’s book does not translate too well into the dramaturgical structures of a formulaic blockbuster feature. Childlike poetry and static characters have to make way for fast-talking and psychologically rounded characters with motivations and the potential to learn something for life. Of course this collides more often than not with the cartoony approach of the animation. Hayward/Martino’s film departs in two different directions from the original: artistically it overcomes some of the limitations of conventional CG-models while content wise it emulates standard blockbuster formulas by over defining everything.

While Horton is faithful and tolerant, he is not calm and easy-going for sure. Jim Carrey might be the ideal actor for providing the animators with improvisation that really stimulate their fantasy but in the larger context of the story he is totally miscast because he makes a zippy clown out of a character who is supposed to be solid as a rock (but lovably so). Symptomatically Steve Carell’s Mayor of Whoville is not all that different from Carrey’s Horton because each represents the same kind of guy in their respective world. Contrast in character relationship thus has to come from the characters surrounding the protagonists. So we have the Sour Kangaroo mirrored by a rationally manipulative council man in Whoville, Hortons superfluous friend Morton (a garish turquoise mouse voiced by Seth Rogen) performs essentially the same functions as the Mayor’s wife and so on. Among all the additional characters the one interesting (because he is not susceptible to peer pressure) son among 90+ daughters, Jojo (the Shirker as Dr. Seuss called him), regrettably does not get more attention by the writers than by his father.

Although most of the subplots are thematically motivated they just seem to distract from the main thread’s thinness. By introducing Horton half-heartedly as a teacher to the kids of some gossipy jungle animals (strictly female parents I guess, no Wickershams’ sons seen in his class), at least the rational Kangaroo has a reason for lobbying against Horton on the grounds that he teaches “rabbits to use their imagination”. But sadly the scene comes across as a lukewarm mixture of Finding Nemo’s beginning and the Bare Necessities.

Dr. Seuss’ playful sense of humor is coming through now and then but often gets covered by not so fresh prat fall type gags and the above mentioned annoying hyperactivity. That is also where all those pop references come in that threaten to destroy the believability of so many cartoon worlds ever since Aladdin (1992) popularized them. How can an elephant quoting Henry Kissinger or Apocalypse Now (1979) be consistent within a cohesive world of childlike imagination?

As I would like to reinforce: all of the shortcomings mentioned above refer to the filmmakers’ obvious attempt of streamlining Horton into a formula the elusive story wasn’t made for. The better and more interesting part about it is that they also made a cartoon out of it at the same time.

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