Monday, March 31, 2008

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Movie adaptations of Dr. Seuss stories

Horton captures imaginations and Seuss' vision

Rameez Anwar

Issue date: 3/21/08

After the last two movie adaptations of a Dr. Seuss story - the forgettable How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the abominable The Cat in the Hat - it had become a legitimate concern as to whether it was possible to successfully convert one of Seuss's concise classics into a full-length film. However, Hollywood's latest attempt, Horton Hears a Who!, makes the prospect of a big screen Green Eggs and Ham much less frightening. While the movie is legitimately entertaining, and not even in a "so bad it's kind of good" way, it flags in energy whenever it strays from the concept of the original story and focuses on uninspired plot additions.

For the most part, the film focuses on Dr. Seuss' original plot: Horton the elephant (The Number 23's Jim Carrey) discovers a microscopic world on a speck of dust, befriends the mayor of tiny Whoville ("The Office"'s Steve Carell) and then embarks on a journey to find a safe place to store the speck of dust.

In addition to its faithful rendition of the original plot, the movie's vibrant animation excellently captures the tone of Seuss' trademark whimsical illustrations. The live-action adaptations of Seuss' work had neutered this essential quality with pounds of creepy makeup and expensive but drab set pieces. The success of Horton's visual style seems to indicate that Seuss' magic works best in a cartoon format.

Another aspect of the movie that separates it from The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat is its refusal to allow the story to be hijacked by any of its performers. Jim Carrey tones down his act to create a sweet and sometimes funny character without overstaying his welcome.

The voice acting in general is well done, with notable performances coming from Carell and from Will Arnett ("Arrested Development") as the vulture mercenary, Vlad.

The movie only temporarily loses its way whenever it forays into the subplots added in order to extend a 10-minute read into a 90-minute movie. For instance, the plotline involving the miscommunication between the mayor and his only son (out of 97 children) is clich├ęd and never really gets resolved.

Besides adding these ill-advised plot devices, the movie's only other shortcoming is that it never really strikes an appropriate balance between entertaining both children and adults. For a cartoon like Horton, keeping parents and nostalgic college students from groaning or falling asleep in their seats should be subservient to the primary goal of entertaining children. However, most of the laughs in the theater were coming from the adults, while the kids often sounded confused. That isn't to say they were never laughing; on the contrary, most of the kids seemed to enjoy the movie quite a bit, judging by the looks on their faces as they exited the theater. But it often seemed like there was a chorus of "huh?" accompanying the film's soundtrack.

Overall, Horton Hears a Who! is the best of the three recent Dr. Seuss adaptations. The general adherence to the original plot, engaging but never over-the-top voice acting and lively visuals easily offset the movie's few shortcomings.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

ILLUSTRATED BOOKS Movie adaptations have happy endings

Movie adaptations have happy endings
Friday, March 14, 2008 3:06 AM
What Horton the elephant hears in the Dr. Seuss story about him is, of course, a Who.

What 20th Century Fox hopes to hear with the movie adaptation of Horton Hears a Who!, featuring the voices of Jim Carrey and Steve Carell, is something quite different: the rustle of runaway box-office receipts.

That's what Hollywood has always wanted to hear when it adapts children's stories -- and why it's adapted so many. What's notable about Horton Hears a Who! is that it marks the latest instance of an increasingly common development in Hollywood's pursuit of the family market: the return of the illustrated children's book.

Using children's picture books and illustrated novels as inspiration is nothing new for Hollywood. Several early Disney animation features originated that way. Yet the past few years have seen picture books come to the screen as never before.

Seussian cinema, as one might call illustrated-book-derived movies, has practically become its own genre: The Cat in the Hat (2003) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), among others, preceded Horton. No doubt this movie connection would please Seuss, who, as Maj. Theodor Geisel, headed the animation division of Frank Capra's Armed Forces Picture unit during World War II.

Rivaling Seuss as king of the illustrated-book movie genre is Chris van Allsburg. Adaptations of his books include Jumanji (1995), The Polar Express(2004) and Zathura (2005). Like Seuss, van Allsburg has a Hollywood connection: He was a layout designer on Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989).

The genre might have rival kings, but there's no argument about who its 800-pound gorilla is -- or, rather, 800-pound ogre: The three Shrek movies, featuring the title character of William Steig's 1990 picture book, have had worldwide grosses of $1.6 billion.

Almost since they began, movies have adapted both fairy tales (Cinderella in 1899) and children's classics (Heidi in 1920). And it was a fairy tale that Walt Disney turned to for his first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

The bad thing about the genre is how it invariably abandons one of the most cherishable elements of the books it draws on: their elegant simplicity of storytelling.

In filling out the narratives for the screen, so much of the charm, grace and character of the books' storytelling gets lost. The Shrek movies are the worst offender, but they make up for it with their inventiveness. The creepiest children's book adaptation might be The Polar Express, with its weird animatronic computer graphics.

Almost since they began, movies have adapted both fairy tales and children's classics.