(CNN) -- First the good news: As the lead character in "Horton Hears a Who!", Jim Carrey does not parade around in an elephant costume.
Horton is a big-hearted, small-brained, happy-go-lucky elephant whose huge ears pick up a whisper from a tiny passing speck.
No, after two laborious, decidedly overstuffed live-action Dr. Seuss movies -- "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "The Cat in the Hat" -- Hollywood has gone back to the drawing board ... or more accurately, the computer. "Horton" is an animated film, not an extravaganza of makeup and special effects. It seems like such a no-brainer, you have to wonder why it took the studio so long to figure it out.
At any rate, "Horton Hears a Who!" is the first Seuss movie since the beloved Chuck Jones TV specials to look comfortable in its own skin. The visuals are bright, poppy and fun.
Of course Jones' 1970 TV version of "Horton" -- written by the good doctor himself -- clocked in at a TV- (and child-) friendly 26 minutes. Size may not matter in metaphysics, as the moral of this story insists ("a person is a person, no matter how small"), but that kind of running time won't wash in theaters.
So screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul had to come up with an additional hour of material. Much of it is amusing, and most is in the Seussian spirit, but there's a limit to how far you can gild the lily before it droops, and this story's very simple design teeters as precariously as the cat in the hat's leaning tower of bric-a-brac. Fortunately, somehow, catastrophe is averted, and "Horton" emerges as 90 decent minutes of entertainment.
Horton (voiced by Carrey) is a big-hearted, small-brained, happy-go-lucky elephant whose huge ears pick up a whisper from a tiny passing speck. To the bemusement and perplexity of his friends and enemies in the jungle, Horton berths it on a freshly cut clover and announces he has befriended the miniscule Mayor of Whoville (voice of Steve Carell). Watch the big names behind the chacters »
A lot of the new material concerns this new character (in the original, more logically, Horton connects with an astronomer). The Mayor has a wife, a son -- JoJo -- 96 daughters, and just one bathroom. He's dismayed to discover that his world is nothing but an insignificant particle of dust floating through space, aghast to learn that the sudden dramatic shifts in climate besetting Whoville signify impending doom and distressed to realize he must inform his helplessly complacent fellow citizens their safety lies in the benevolence of an invisible giant elephant in the sky.
Do we detect the faint toot of a political message? Perhaps, but the leap of faith Horton and the Mayor must make (despite ridicule on all sides) could apply equally to spiritual belief or scientific inquiry. Aside from its unconscious chauvinism, there's not much to get upset about in a film that preaches universal tolerance and inclusion.
Horton's nemesis is the jungle's self-appointed governess, Kangaroo (voiced with impressive venom by Carol Burnett), an empirical control freak. It's not abundantly clear why she's so threatened by an elephant talking to a clover, but with a true dogmatist's reactionary zeal, she declares the flower must be destroyed.
Will Arnett racks up the tension and the laughs as Vlad, the vulture assigned the hit (not to be confused with "the bunny Vlad that makes the cookies," as Horton asks). Carrey noodles whimsically between the beats -- "We can be a secret society," he tells the clover, "and no one else can join unless they wear funny hats" -- while his "Bruce Almighty" co-star whips up enough of a hullabaloo that the voice of the people is finally heard.
"Horton Hears a Who!" is a better storybook than it is a movie, but it's still a pretty good family film, for big and small alike.
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