Deneb does Horton Hears a Who! [Tales of the VHS, Part 3]

“You’re a dastardly, gastardly, shnastardly shnook!”

The Scoop: 1970 G, directed by Chuck Jones and starring Hans Conreid, June Foray, Chuck Jones and Thurl Ravenscroft.

Tagline: If there is one, I don’t know about it.

Summary Capsule: There is a tiny community of eensy-weensy people that only Horton the elephant can detect in any way. He tries to tell people about it. Horton, you poor, poor fool… 

Deneb’s Rating: Seuss does sci-fi – and it works! It works very well!

Deneb’s Review: You may recall, a few years back, there being a lot of hoopla over a certain animated film. It was called Horton Hears a Who, and it was being lauded to the skies. Why? Because it was the first Dr. Seuss adaptation in yonks and yonks that didn’t… er, how shall I put this… ah, heck with it – that didn’t suck like a vacuum cleaner in a black hole halfway up the cosmic milkshake straw. (I may be exaggerating just a tad, but not by much.)

See, it had been a bad few years for Seuss. First there’d been the Grinch movie, which was awful, then there was the Cat in the Hat movie, which was even worse. (For the record, I haven’t seen either of them, so this is all hearsay – but it’s pretty darn prevalent hearsay.) It was looking like Seuss was pure poison on the big screen.

Then along came Horton. “‘Ol-lay-lewyer!” people hollered, and jumped up and down and did the hornpipe in a maybe-slightly-more-than-metaphorical sense. (It’s a big world, after all – statistically speaking, there’s a pretty good chance.) It wasn’t hideous! It was actually competent! No taint of the cosmic milkshake straw detected! Whoopee!

So it did boffo box-office, the critics, drunk on not-suckiness, declared it a minor masterpiece, and all was happy-happy-joy-joy. And as it happens, I saw it as well.

What did I think of it? Well, that’s another review I may do sometime. Basically, it wasn’t bad; I enjoyed it, but that was about it.

You see, this latest version of Horton was only that – the latest. There was a previous version made, one that I’d watched for years, and which I was very fond of. And there just wasn’t room enough in my heart of hearts for two – one of them had to go, so I picked the big flashy new one and gave it the boot. Heck with big and flashy, I’ll go with small and cozy.

Which means – yes! It’s time for another Tales of the VHS, folks! Hold onto your hats!

The plot of Horton is one of those elegantly simple notions that pop up from time to time. It is set in the Jungle of Nool, a variegated island paradise, where dwells Horton the elephant, a benevolent sort of pachyderm who spends his days cheerfully going about his own business.

Now elephants, as everyone knows, have big ears, and therefore can hear things better than some. Therefore, it naturally follows that they hear some things which no one else can – and that proves to be the case here. While Horton is having a quiet swim in the river, a tiny voice echoes in his eardrums – a voice crying out for help. Turns out it’s coming from the direction of a speck of dust which is about to take an unscheduled dip.

Gracious! Well, if a dust speck can muster up the voice to yell for help, then clearly it’s his job to provide it, since, as he puts it, “a person’s a person, no matter how small”. So he rescues the dust speck, plops it down on a convenient clover, and tells it it’s safe.

This is where things start getting seriously screwy. You see, Horton gets into a conversation with the speck, and it turns out that it’s not the speck itself who he’s talking to, it’s a person who lives on the speck. See, the dust speck is really some sort of exceptionally tiny planetoid which is home to the community of Whoville, where dwell the Whos. Yes, as in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, only we’re not talking about a cozy little mountain community this time – this Whoville is a thriving Seussian metropolis, complete with drugstores, apartment buildings, clock towers, the works. So Horton has not simply saved the life of a dust speck, he’s saved the lives of the entire city.

This is all very well and good, but there’s a kicker in the plot. See, Nool’s other inhabitants do not have Horton’s economy-sized ears, and therefore can’t hear any of this – so when they see him chattering away to a dust speck on a clover, they figure he’s cah-ray-zay. Hence, they immediately start trying to take it away from him and dispose of it, for his own well-being. Poor Horton has an uphill battle on his hands to prove the Whos’ existence to his busybody neighbors – and that’s if he can do so before both clover and dust speck are lost, discarded or otherwise obliterated.

Man alive, it’s a shame that these old animated Seuss adaptations don’t get more love. There were roughly a zillion of ‘em made back then, or so it seems, and apart from Grinch, few people seem to remember them except nostalgia buffs like myself. This is a real pity, because most of them are quite well done, and some, like this one, actually improve on the source material to some degree.

Let’s take a look at what I mean. The above plot synopsis pretty much covers all versions of the story to date, including both adaptations. (OK, there is technically also a Russian adaptation, but it doesn’t have the same name or art style, so we’ll skip it.) However, this particular version makes certain changes, made (I think) by Seuss himself, which to my mind greatly enhance the overall story.

The main change – and really, the only one that matters – is that of just who Horton is talking to down on the dust speck. In the original, the speck’s mouthpiece is simply the Mayor of Whoville, and he’s the guy talking because he’s in charge – all the town’s inhabitants are aware of their current situation, and are grateful to Horton for saving their bacon. In this version, the man of the hour is one “Dr. H. Hoovey, Professor of Science”, who is speaking to Horton through something he calls his “Who-Scope Appliance”, basically a sort of speaker-receiver setup that allows him, and only him, to talk to outside intelligences, like, say, elephants. He’d be more than happy to share the fruits of his knowledge with the other Whos, but they don’t believe him – as far as they’re concerned, Whoville is all there is to the universe.

The 2000 film did a sort of combination of these two concepts, making the spokes-Who the mayor, but keeping the “only he can hear Horton” angle. Personally, I think they should have just stuck with the Doc, because his addition, to my mind, bumps up the story from simple fable to genuine science fiction, albeit on a small scale.

Hoovey, you see, is no mere civic functionary with a microphone – he’s a scientist, a genuine seeker of knowledge. Moreover, an unappreciated seeker of same – he’s worked on his Who-Scope for years and years, basically as a one-man SETI program. Finally, finally his labors have borne fruit – he’s just saved his world from imminent destruction, for crying out loud, a destruction that no one else was even aware of – but when he tells the other Whos about it, what do they do? They laugh at him, just as they’ve been doing the whole time. So far as they’re concerned, he’s an old crackpot who’s only good for providing the locals with entertainment.

This sets up a unique relationship between the elephant and the scientist. Both are basically in the same position – while Hoovey wearily bears the laughter of his neighbors, Horton must face the increasing incredulity and disapproval of the jungle at large, from gossiping birds to the monkeylike Wickersham Brothers attempting to dispose of the clover for good. Indeed, one could say that Hoovey’s predicament is a precursor of Horton’s – people may laugh at him and say he’s nuts, but Horton ultimately winds up facing what is basically a full-scale witch hunt, and for exactly the same reasons. Things do work out in Hoovey’s favor eventually  – this is, after all, a kids’ cartoon; we can’t get too dark – but it’s made pretty clear that, given a little time, he could have wound up facing the same treatment. As such, they understand each other – they are alone in their respective communities, and if something isn’t done about it in both cases, they could be in for some serious trouble. It makes for an interesting dynamic, and rather an unusual one for its intended audience.

But hey, that’s not all it’s about – I mean, it’s Dr. Seuss, right? That means we get lots of rhymes, bright colors, and general Seussian nonsense, right? Sure we do! We’ve got Whoville, for starters, chock-full of Seuss’s usual bizarre architecture, we’ve got the Wickersham Brothers, who come across as paranoid political commentators, we’ve got two of the best and worst songs ever written (“The World is A-Sittin’ on an Elephant’s Nose” and “Be Kind to your Small-Person Friends”, respectively) – oh, there’s plenty to like here. And if you don’t like it, it’s only about half an hour long, so no big loss.

So would I recommend it? Well, yes, I would – as far as this sort of thing goes, I’d recommend it strongly. I mean, seriously, is there anyone out there who really dislikes Dr. Seuss? I know most people wouldn’t want a constant diet of him, but do any of you out there genuinely hate his stuff? The law of averages says yes, and if you’re one of said people, then yeah, you’d probably be better staying away. For everyone else, this is a cheerful, harmless piece of children’s entertainment that might nonetheless actually provoke a thought or two. I’ll take it over CGI and Jim Carrey any day.

(And incidentally, yes, there are going to be some Tales of the VHS entries that do not focus on animation. I’ll get to ‘em eventually, I promise.)

"Horton, you nitwit, you're being lied to. There are, as I've said all along, no Whos on this dust speck at all - close examination instead shows them to be an example of a species of 'Which'. So naturally, we must now start a hunt for them, a-heh-heh... heh. Hrmmph - philistine. Elephants have no sense of humor."

Intermission!

  • Seuss wrote the book in support for the then-current US occupation and reconstruction of Japan and Germany post-WW2, which was controversial at the time. Horton’s line of “A person’s a person, no matter how small” was meant to emphasize that even former enemies (the ‘small’) deserved support in times of need.
  • The Wickersham Brother with the deepest voice is voiced by Thurl Ravenscroft, best known to most as the original voice of Tony the Tiger.
  • In the years since the book’s initial publication, Horton’s “A person’s a person” line has been used by anti-abortion activists to support their viewpoint. This annoyed the good doctor quite a bit, as the line had nothing to do with the issue, and in fact he himself was pro-choice. He came close to suing a group of pro-lifers who had started using the phrase on their stationary.
  • One of the Whos appears to be some sort of relative of the Grinch.
  • The Wickersham Brothers are probably named after General George W. Wickersham, who was head of the Wickersham Commission, a group who was in charge of overseeing and enforcing prohibition laws. Given their political views, this seems appropriate.
  • During the ‘Make Yourself Heard’ sequence, there are several bits of animation that appear to be reused from How the Grinch Stole Christmas – specifically, the bit where the Grinch is gloomily thinking of “all the noise, noise, noise, NOISE!” that the Whos will make on Christmas morning.
  • In the original book, the main antagonist is called the Sour Kangaroo. In this one, she’s Jane Kangaroo, which if you ask me is a better name. ‘Sour Kangaroo’ just sounds like it’s trying too hard.

Groovy Quotes:

Narrator: (opening lines) On the 15th of May, in the Jungle of Nool, in the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool, he was splashing, enjoying the jungle’s great joys, when Horton the elephant heard a small noise.

Wickersham Brothers: (singing) It’s a deep-dyed evil political plot/pretending you’re talking to Whos/who are not!

Dr. Hoovey: But the people down here don’t believe me. They don’t.
Clock cleaner: That’s perfectly right, Doc! We don’t and we won’t!

Bird: With demented elephants, yet!

Jane Kangaroo: Horton – I’ve known you twelve years in the Jungle of Nool, and I’ve always considered you somewhat a fool. But talking to dust specks? That is really poo-poo. Something has got to be done about you, and something’s precisely what I’m going to do.

Quizzer McQuaff: Hidey-hi, hidey-ho, let us play hide and seek!

Mother Who: Is Horton an elephant?
Baby Who #1: No, man, Horton’s a pickle!
Baby Who #2: What’s a Horton?

Horton: What are you, anyhow?
Dr. Hoovey: Not ‘what’, sir. I’m a Who.

Wickersham Brothers: You’re a dastardly, gastardly, shnastardly shnook!

Jo-Jo: I just don’t know, sir – I never have tried.
Dr. Hoovey: You’d better try soon, or you’re gonna be fried.

Birds: (singing) Mrs. Toucanella told me that he’s manic and depressive/retrogressive and recessive and/progressively obsessively possessively aggressively aggressive!

Horton: Dr. Hoovey, fasten your seatbelt! Tie yourself down! Batten your hatches! Sandbag the whole town!
Dr. Hoovey: ‘Batten our hatches’? I don’t understand! What is a seatbelt? We’re fresh out of sand!

Jane Kangaroo: Spread the word, Mrs. T, throughout Precinct 23!

Dr. Hoovey: It is very discouraging, Mr. Horton. Nobody believes that you exist – or that anything exists, outside his own little world.

Bird #1: He ought to be psychowalwulized!
Bird #2: Oh, no! Psychowalwulnalysis is too expensive for an elephant. I hear they charge by the pound.

Dr. Hoovey: (singing) If you can’t blow a bloozer, try blowing your nose/If you can’t snap your fingers, try snapping your toes!

Horton: And what does a Who do?

Dr. Hoovey: What to do? I wish I knew!

Whos: (singing) Old Doc Hoovey, he talked through a hose/who old Doc talked to, nobody knows/then he said, “My dear/it’s perfectly clear/that the world is a-sittin’ on an elephant’s nose!”

Horton: Keep up your courage, now; never let it sink! Things are getting better – much better! …I think.

Wickersham Brother #1: We know what you’re up to, pal!
Wickersham Brother #2: You’re trying to shatter our morale.
Wickersham Brother #3: You’re trying to stir up discontent –
All: (singing) And seize the reins of government!

Horton: You Whos, don’t give up! I believe in you all! A person’s a person, no matter how small! And you very small persons will not have to die if you make yourselves heard! So come on now and try!

Horton: (repeated line) A person’s a person, no matter how small.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • The Hoober-Bloob Highway
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4 Comments

  1. I watched this production when I was quite small
    I thought all the hoopla was such falderal
    Why couldn’t the others leave Horton alone
    As he listened to Whos through their big megaphone?

    The jungle buttinskies were meddling fools
    Trying to drop the speck into the pool
    At last they perceived a small sound, just a bit
    But enough to conclude they’d been villainous twits

    • Well, if you’re going to put it THAT way:

      It’s a parable of dimensions humongous,
      For folks of all sizes do now walk among us,
      And the big folks, they say (unless they’re on sabbatical),
      “We now have two choices, in terms ungrammatical –
      Either accept these small folks as they am,
      Or stomp ’em and squash ’em to strawberry jam!”

      All too often, it seems, they holler, post-planning,
      to “Get out the jam-jars – it’s time for the canning!”
      So it’s lucky we’re therefore that folks of both sizes
      have decided that life holds more pleasant surprises
      if the stomping’s held back, as opposed to turned loose,
      and that one of those folksies was old Dr. Seuss.

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