Everything about Horton Hears a Who! is large. The elephant, the stars’ names, the digital production, the critical buzz, and the product tie-ins — with all this going on, the movie can’t help but be huge.
Isn’t it ironic, then, that the story — expanded from the Dr. Seuss original — is focused on the appreciation of things small? Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey), is a favorite among the animal children of the jungley habitat of Nool, entertaining them with lessons in flora and fauna. His adventures begin when he happens to hear a noise from a passing speck. In fact, he hears a voice, which leads him to pursue the speck as it floats away, finally capturing it on a clover. Propping the flower before him, Horton listens again, more intently, and makes contact with the town that exists on the speck, in the form of the mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell).
Because they have engaged with others who remain unseen to their peers, both Horton and the mayor are faced with disbelief and ridicule. Horton’s community is slightly diverse, including those doting kids (who immediately gather up their own clovers in hopes of discovering their own specks), his best friend Morton the mouse (Seth Rogen), and his primary doubter and scold, the kangaroo (Carol Burnett). As soon as she hears he’s talking to a speck, she fumes: “If you can’t hear, feel, or see something,” she spews, “It doesn’t exist.” So deemed the enemy of imagination, creativity, and childhood more generally, the kangaroo takes up an actual campaign to have the speck destroyed. She can’t just let Horton speak to his speck or worse, influence others (“He makes them question authority which leads to defiance!”). In order to set right the order of the universe (“There was a time when people were people and specks were specks”), the kangaroo determines she must stop Horton and eradicate the speck.
This imminent destruction is set in motion when the kangaroo hires a vulture named Vlad (Will Arnett) to eat or otherwise decimate the speck (“Being a lady,” she harrumphs, “I’d prefer not to get my hands dirty, but I know you have no problem with that”). At the same time, another, teeny disaster is also afoot. This, the mayor discovers from the “brainiest brain” Who-Scientist Dr. Mary Lou Larue (Isla Fisher), is the imminent demise of Whoville, owing to geographic instability and, essentially, climate change (unexpected snowfall and frigid temperatures confirm her prediction, sending the mayor into a tizzy). And so Horton, hearing about both bad possible ends, decides to save the speck, carrying it to a cave up the mountain from Nool, where it can remain undisturbed for however long Whoville might exist.
The parallel stories allow the movie to cut back and forth between the antics of Horton and the mayor (or more precisely, Carrey and Carell), as each one-lines his way toward a predictable end (Whoville is saved). While the movie includes narration (by Charles Osgood) drawn from the book, it also allows the stars opportunity for topical pop-cultural references as well as narrative detours, as when the mayor goes in for a Who-Root Canal “Sticking “‘Who’ in front of everything,” he gripes, “doesn’t make it hurt less”) or Horton’s clover lands in a field of clovers, whereupon he sets out to locate his speck-adorned lower out of the thousands stretching before him.
The stories are, at base, familiar. In addition to the coming apocalypse, the mayor is dealing with a son, long-haired, rebellious Jo-Jo (Jesse McCartney), who, unlike his 96 sisters, is destined to inherit his father’s position and resents it. Barely sketched, this relationship primarily serves as an occasion for the mayor to achieve a personal sort of resolution, approximate to Horton’s resolution with his own community, whether in the form of the kangaroo, his speedy sidekick, or his students.
All this conventional plotting, however, needn’t overwhelm the more important point, that “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” As much as the kangaroo wants to differentiate between specks and people, or to recover a past that was never as set or sweet as she remembers it, she has to see, eventually, that diversity is ascendant. In this way, Horton’s promise to Whoville and his famous mantra — “An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent” — become another means to big themes, after all. So, for all those potential viewers suffering from border and class anxieties, racism, xenophobia, voter oppression, generational prejudice, and misogyny, Horton Hears a Who! offers another story. “We are here,” sing out the Whos, in their effort to be heard by ears less sensitive than Horton’s. And even if you can’t hear them, they’re still here.