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Elephant’s forgettable in ‘Horton Hears a Who!’

Dr. Seuss adaptation has visual charms, but it just isn’t funny

It’s damning with faint praise to say that “Horton Hears a Who!” is a better Dr. Seuss adaptation than the recent big-screen versions of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “The Cat in the Hat.” Those two overstuffed nightmares, after all, do to the original Seuss books what Shrek does to his copy of “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” in his outhouse, one page at a time. But while “Horton” scores points for its design, it fails miserably in the script department.

The story is simplicity itself: Big-eared elephant Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey) hears voices coming from a tiny dust speck that contains the city of Whoville. After talking to that municipality’s mayor (Steve Carell), Horton is determined to take the speck up to a cave where it can rest securely and comfortably. Stymieing his plan is the bossy and closed-minded Kangaroo (Carol Burnett), who refuses to believe in the Whos since she can’t see, hear or touch them.

Directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, both veterans of modern computer-generated animation who are both first-timers at running the show, do a terrific job of capturing Seuss’s world. The fuzzy-topped trees and flowers of the jungle, the Escher-ian architecture of Whoville, and the characters’ faces and heads all look like they’ve sprung from the original books. (As opposed to the live-action versions of the Grinch and the Cat in the Hat, who looked, respectively, like Jim Carrey and Mike Myers drowning in complex and unattractive latex.) Seuss never said definitively that the Whoville of “Horton” is the same one from “Grinch,” but the Whos here seem bizarre and extravagant enough to spend Christmas Day playing an Electro-Who-Cardio-Shnook.

And there’s no tamping down the anti-conformist message of “Horton,” either, with the titular elephant and the Mayor of Whoville both standing up for what they know is true even when they’re aware that they’re defending something that isn’t rational. But the morals of a Dr. Seuss book are supposed to sneak up on you after you’ve been laughing, and there are precious few chuckles to be found here.

In expanding the story to a three-act screenplay that has to run 88 minutes, screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul create story beat after story beat for Horton (who tries to make his way past the vulture and gorillas that Kangaroo hires to destroy the speck) and for the Mayor (whose glum son doesn’t want to inherit the family title and whose saucy secretary thinks has lost his mind) but not nearly enough humorous payoffs. It took only 26 minutes for Chuck Jones to tell this story on TV in 1970, and he packed in a lot more wit and successful gags back then.

Part of the problem may be Carrey who, like Robin Williams, runs roughshod over any comedy project he gets. One suspects he’s the one who thought the anime sequence (which will date this movie in no time) would be a riot; like most of the other jokes in the movie, however, it just lies there.

While celebrity voices have been the bane of big-budget cartoons of late — taking work away from performers like June Foray and Billy West, who are experts at this kind of thing — they do occasionally yield something special and memorable, like Ellen DeGeneres’ Dory in “Finding Nemo” and now, Carol Burnett’s Kangaroo, a wonderfully hissable villain.

The big screen continues to do wrong by Dr. Seuss’ enduring legacy. Filmgoers are advised to stick with his one cinematic triumph — the aggressively eccentric “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.” (1953). As for “Horton,” audiences will, in a few years, be asking, “Who?”