on August 26, 2008
AT LAST! A Dr. Seuss movie that is...Seuss!
Perhaps I should say, first of all, that Dr. Seuss was, at least the estimation of many, a literary genius--though, as goes without saying, of a special variety. There is good reason to suspect that his legacy will survive right along side of Mother Goose, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen; with the passing centuries, his stories may well only become more and more synonymous with classic, timeless fairy tales and children's fables. He was ahead of his time in more ways than one, and what his editor at Random House has recently said of him is almost a truism: "What his books have to say about fairness, discrimination, peace, the environment, consumerism, and humanity in general is finding more advocates each year."
Was Dr. Seuss politically correct? In his beginner books, Dr. Seuss helps children to read by showing what they already know; he mixes a few hundred words from a child's vocabulary with phonetic nonsense words--while at the same time coining new words. He remains true to the fact that alphabetic language is not just a matter of phonics, while at the same time not putting on dreary airs that phonics has nothing to do with alphabetic language. He also tells meaningful stories without talking down to his readers; he tells truths that children can understand but ones which adults need every bit as much to hear. In 'Green Eggs and Ham,' for example, he reminds us not to judge things we don't understand, and that persons can freely be who they are--'I am Sam'--while at the same time not pretending a sweeping presumption that 'good' is purely relative and that 'right and wrong' are simply a matter of the situation: While oblivious to being bombarded by Sam's arguments--'Would you like them here or there?...in a house...with a mouse?'--the character still concludes: 'Say!...I do! I like them, Sam-I-am!...I will eat them ANYWHERE!' In 'The Sneetches,' he points out the absurdity of racism--but free of the hidden prejudice which offers equality as a concession--; 'that day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars, and whether they had one or not, upon thars.' Thars? And in 'Horton Hears a Who' (which invokes Seuss' all-important, whole language concept, 'who-ville'), he teaches that a person's a person, no matter how small--yet with the one still in the kangaroo pouch being that last to realize it: 'ME, TOO!' Political correctness may be defined as morality without any tie to truth. Dr. Seuss tongue-ties the most elaborate political correctness--in favor of the simplest of truths.
I've long been a fan of the cartoon versions of both 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' and 'Horton Hears a Who,' and, that being said, I also do think this cinema, computer animated version of the latter is the best "action" adaptation of Seuss' yet made. Visually as well as otherwise, this film somehow or another is unsurpassed in capturing Seuss--and I think 'Horton Hears a Who' is Seuss' masterpiece. Refreshingly, unlike some other movie renditions of Seuss--which have sometimes even seemed intentionally ugly (something not very Seussian)--: who-ville is simply who-ville, as Seuss-like as can be. A delight--and perhaps even something before only beheld in the imagination--even given Seuss' unique and distinctive illustrations in his books; certainly the best use of pure CGI I've seen (not overcoming, of course, its intrinsic limitations).
Yet there is also a curious dimension of the film, one which, perhaps despite itself, only goes to show Seuss' genius. The movie takes several liberties with the book, as movies do, but two are especially worth mentioning: In the film, the mayor of who-ville is made out to be the father of a big, even 'absurdly big' family--though of many many girls and just the one boy the mayor wants as heir--; it is the defiance of the baby kangaroo, living in Horton's own Jungle of Nool (albeit still in its mother's pouch), that, in siding with Horton, changes the mind of its mother, who then also finally realizes too that there really are tiny people in the speck on the clover. In the book, by contrast, the mother kangaroo changes her mind on her own, after hearing what Horton could hear all along with his big elephant ears--telling Horton that 'I'm going to protect them with you'--with the baby kangaroo merely echoing her. Curious here too is that the film even throws a punch against home schooling, having the narrow minded, prejudiced, kangaroo mother, speak on its behalf. What was the point of these liberties? To poke fun at big families and home schoolers? Yet these very twists also come together in the end, when in a special way it is just these children of the who-ville mayor, joining forces with the baby in the kangaroo pouch, that finally succeed in conveying the message that Horton tried to convey in vain: 'We are here! We are here! We are here! We are here!' Hollywood underscores Seuss' pro-life message? Curious...
Was that dimension already in the book, or not? The standard response of Seuss' widow: no. Was giving a different response the intent of the makers of this movie? That might be strange. So do we have here, instead, a sort of blow-back from a fumbled attempt to man-handle Seuss--and make him speak politically-correct-ese? Was this an attempt automatically foiled, like trying to escape from Chinese finger-cuffs by force, or tampering with a child-resistant cap on a medicine bottle?
Some people say that the masterpieces of Mozart or Beethoven or Chopin cannot be truly appreciated or understood unless you know the biographies of the artists, because art, ultimately, is self-expression. Other people say that if art is nothing but self-expression, then the best artists would and should never be appreciated or understood by anyone but themselves. Yet other people say that an artwork itself tells us something about the artist, and in the great, timeless masterpieces, that is precisely because it shaped and influenced the artist as much as anyone else who will ever have contact with it and appreciate it.
If Dr. Seuss' 'Horton Hears a Who' does not have a pro-life message, then nor is about McCarthy and 1950s' paranoia, nor is it about celebrating diversity in opinions, values and lifestyles--nor even about the Japanese victims of the atomic blasts, to whom Seuss evidently, in some way, dedicated the story. Perhaps it rises above all of these themes in the same way that Chopin's etudes rise above his love life. Perhaps, in the end, its simply about how carefully we are willing to listen. Whatever the meaning of the story (it seems to me there are multiple levels, and multiple possible interpretations), what does not seem to be left to a matter of opinion is whether or not "there are any whos in who-ville." The truth is the truth no matter how small, and a lie is a lie, no matter how tall.
By whatever Seuss-like crooked lines it took to get there, this is a very good film, and faithful enough to Seuss to at least make people--young and old--think, laugh--and really care that all the whos in who-ville shout loud enough to be heard...