Tastier than a platter of green eggs and ham, "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who" is a pachyderm-sized helping of silliness and graceful imagination. Earlier big-screen adaptations have smothered the good doctor's unpretentious whimsy under layers of production bloat. "Horton," from the producers of "Ice Age," feels as blithe and confident of its unpretentious virtues as its long-nosed hero. It ranks among the rare family entertainments that are both kid- and adult-friendly. Children might not realize how good it is, but older viewers certainly will.
Jim Carrey, atoning for his strident 2000 performance as the Grinch, hits a note of unforced charm as the elephant Horton. With ears large enough to hear the smallest of voices, he becomes the ambassador between the parallel worlds of the jungle and the spec-sized planet of the Whos.
After floating through space, the Whos' world has landed on a flower that Horton carefully protects. The snippy Kangaroo (Carol Burnett) questions his sanity and insists that he stop making claims about invisible Whos whom no one else can hear.
On the submicroscopic level, Steve Carell is the Mayor of Whoville, a feline-looking creature whose rain spout is the outlet for Horton's voice. Prune-faced grumps on his City Council mock his warnings that Whoville's increasingly unpredictable weather reflects an approaching global warming-style mess. (If you object to veiled political themes in children's lit, the unrepentantly progressive Seuss is not your man.) Carell, who does panicked, out-of-control authority figures brilliantly, is the ideal actor for the role. As a gargoylish vulture brought in to settle Horton's hash, Will Arnett hisses and growls hilariously.
The film boasts a Pixar level of attention to detail and overall quality. Veteran broadcaster Charles Osgood provides kindly-uncle narration. The animation and editing are top-notch, pleasing audiovisual parallels to the author's wriggling lines and bubbly rhymes. The tenderhearted, Buddha-bellied elephant makes an irresistibly cuddly hero, and when he springs into superhero-style action in an anime sequence, he proves a better flier than Dumbo. The architectural madhouse of Whoville, with its candy-cane colors and thousands of eccentric citizens, is a sublimely silly society.
The only objection that can be raised is that the filmmakers continue Seuss' inattention to female characters, who function either as scolds or ciphers. The family-values subplot centers not on the Mayor's 90-odd daughters, but his mopey son, who resembles a vanilla jellybean with emo boy-bangs. Nevertheless, the lad displays some vital 11th-hour moxie. Saving the day here is strictly a male enterprise.
All in all, this is a spirit-lifting affair that proves that children's films and quality needn't be contradictory terms.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186