Just why Dr. Seuss became such a popular household god in Cold War America is one of those minor mysteries that must be left for future historians to untangle. That Hollywood keeps rolling out overstuffed adaptations of the good doctor's beloved and thus readily marketed tales is less perplexing.
The first two Seuss movies -- "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "The Cat in the Hat" were pitiful failures, great, bloated, live-action affronts to eyes and brains. The third time, however, has in some measure proved to be the charm, for "Horton Hears a Who!" created by the studio unit that gave us "Ice Age" is a buoyantly animated, generally inoffensive yet rather wearying padded elaboration of its source. It's a pleasure to look at, if not to sit through, from beginning to end.
The familiar 1954 tale of a lovable elephant, Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey), who has pledged to protect the microscopic Whos, showcases the finger-wagging and moral-mongering so characteristic of the Eisenhower years. "A person's a person, no matter how small," Horton insists again and again, repulsing the attempts of his nemesis, Kangaroo (Carol Burnett), to destroy the dust speck the Whos call home. Unable to hear the Whos, she takes them to be figments of that detestable and dangerous faculty, the imagination.
Meanwhile, down in Whoville, the mayor (Steve Carell) has problems of his own. Only he can hear Horton, and he has a terrible time trying to convince his complacent fellow citizens of their dire jeopardy, one side of which is the threat of death from above in the form of a Russian vulture (Will Arnett) in Kangaroo's employ. Like Ike urging heartland defenses against Soviet warheads, the Whoville mayor must convince the townsfolk that "the sweet life they knew might be over," as the narrator grimly intones. (If anything, this "Horton" actually highlights the original allegory of the tale, in which an elephant, symbol of the reigning political party of the time, protects a good and happy people from something Russian and annihilating.)
The doggedly edifying nature of the plot is at odds with the happily anarchic bent of the animators, and the film works best when anarchy trumps edification. The team, led by directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, seems to have relished the chance to bring Seuss' quasi-hallucinogenic landscapes, structures and creatures to full, candy-colored, three-dimensional life. Whoville, especially, is a fantastic hodgepodge of the world as it would look reflected in a funhouse mirror, punctuated here and there with inspired satirical touches. For example, extravagantly jutting out from a grand facade, the balcony from which the mayor addresses the Whos resembles nothing so much as an institutional toilet.
The abounding visual delights, however, contrast with the leaden whimsicality on offer in the script by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul. The routines cooked up for Carell ("The Office"), for example, make the mayor seem suspiciously like a certain low-level paper-company executive. "Horton" also shows why Carrey's career must be well past its meridian, if only because performances like these are reflexively compared to work he did when he had the great misfortune of being named a comic genius. Many children who see this movie ignorant of Ace Ventura might sit silently through Horton's mugging, a frantic but empty display of virtuosity that will be lost on them. This is a Horton who at any moment will break out in an imitation of Henry Kissinger, or travesty JFK's pledge to land a man on the moon, or go through a dozen mood swings in as many seconds.
The only really iconic Seuss adaptation is, of course, the 1966 television version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" The intimacy of the small screen and the 26-minute runtime were well-suited to the smallness, not to mention the tweeness, of Seuss' vision. Earth, as Robert Frost thought, might be the right place for love, but television is certainly the right place for Dr. Seuss. The tremendous star power and big-budget special effects do to "Horton Hears a Who!" what amber does to a bug: makes it a thing of beauty, but only by smothering it. (G) 88 min. S