Those who make good quality films for children must engender the morality, intent and knowledge of a responsible adult and the sensitivity, curiosity and clear vision of a child. The makers of the film adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic children’s book, Horton Hears A Who (1954) successfully apply those traits to the movie.
I recently spoke by phone with co-director of Horton, Steve Martino, to learn what choices went into creating the movie which is now available on DVD.
My first question of Martino, "Why this movie?"
Martino: We had the opportunity as we met with Audrey Geisel, who is Dr Seuss's widow [and who is credited as an Executive Producer]. She made the Horton property available for film. Her choice in that is one where she wants to keep the legacy of her late husband's work vibrant and still reaching out to new generations.
We were interested in the property because of all of the books Dr. Seuss had done, this one really set up nicely for a film adaptation. Horton Hears a Who has a great string in three acts: beginning, middle and end structure. There's great drama, great heart and a wonderful message. And those components as well as very interesting characters are things that we look at as we begin our journey to making a film.
The process is one that took three and a half years from the very beginning to the end. So, we invest a lot of our, certainly my personal time in it and so what you want is a story that offers you lots of potential, lots of capability in feature filmmaking storytelling.
deRegnier: How did you choose these actors?
Martino: Well, the first thing we look at is the story. What does the story require? And, right off the bat we realized Horton was an unusual elephant. One, he embodies in his personality something I aspire to have, and that is an ability to stand up for what he believes in no matter what he faces. You know, to stand out within the Jungle of Nool in his case, and be true to who he is. As we started thinking about what that would translate to in animation and in overall performance, we realized that he's a character with great imagination and a big personality. You just cannot get anybody bigger than Jim Carrey for that. ["How The Grinch Stole Christmas;" "Truman Show;" "Bruce Almighty;" Golden Globeâwinner.] And, so, that's how we set upon Jim Carrey for Horton. We just felt that he really matched the character.
What was interesting in the process, was what we liked was Jim's natural voice. We felt that Horton was also a very centered and heartfelt character and there are moments in the film that we need to feel that heart. We need to feel that real character. Jim has an ability to create very big and broad performance. We wanted him to be able to, at times, go there, and we always wanted to return to, in this case it would be Jim's natural voice, to be that center for Horton. So what Jim Carrey provides is tremendous range and also a wonderful collaborator when it comes to the creative process. He's such a tremendous improvisational actor.
deRegnier: How about Carol Burnett?
Martino: Oh, gosh the first time I heard Carol Burnett's voice when thinking about the kangaroo it became a no-brainer. [Carol Burnett: "The Carol Burnett Show;" six-time Emmyâ Award winner.] She's got the perfect personality and voice. She can do, as she described, that bitchy-sweet, that ability to be very intense and be a personality but put that little dollop of sweetness on the end of everything that she says.
Once again, she's a tremendous improvisational actor. We went in to the process hoping to work with improvisational comedic actors. Because we believe that within that process we would get even more than what we had on the page going into any recording session. And she delivered that tremendously.
[author's note: Jim Carrey mailed his résumé to "The Carol Burnett Show" in 1967, at age 10.]
deRegnier: What about Steve Carell?
Martino: The wonderful thing about him, and this was a character I very much related to, I'm a father and the mayor of Whoville is a father. I always put myself in that position. And we used to joke about this: what if you woke up in the morning and you were brushing your teeth and your drain pipe spoke to you and said, 'Go to work today and tell everyone that you're being carried around by a giant elephant in the sky and your world's about to end?'
What would you do with that, if you were the one person who got that piece of information? The thing that Steve Carell ["The Office;" "Get Smart"] brings to that role is that he ads the most human quality to a lot of the characters he plays. He puts his Achilles heel out there. He shows that he's a vulnerable person and he acts out those moments so wonderfully, and that's what attracted us to Steve Carell.
deRegnier: A major theme of the movie reminds me of the universality of earth, how we are a spec of dust tumbling through space and don't know it. Why is this important to impart?
Martino: I think the important lesson there is in the effect we have by the choices we make; the things that we do have impact on others. You can take that it by extension that we have impact on our environment. In this case it belongs to a very large scale where Horton, while carrying this teeny tiny spec of dust, has the care of an entire civilization on that little spec.
And we joked, when we were in our first recording session with Jim Carrey, about have you ever had one of those conversations when you were in high school, when you were getting the connection of all things and say 'whoa, what if I were a spec of dust and what if this happened?'
We took that thinking and we amplified it in some of Horton's behavior. He even has a moment very early in the film where he's trying to explain it to the kangaroo and he says, 'No, imagine if we were a spec of dust.' He's holding the spec believing that there are living beings on it and then he goes out to another whole range of another magnitude as if the planet that he and the kangaroo and the Jungle of Nool were on, if they were held on a spec of dust. So, it's this kind of interconnectivity to the things we do and the effect our choices have, which I think become very important.
deRegnier: Why is it important to impart the lessons of compassion, forgiveness and faith?
Martino: The thing that's amazing about Horton in particular, he's unusual as a protagonist in a feature film. Typically, what you find is you have a character who has an arc through his journey in the story, or in a movie you see his character change. What we found in the Horton story is that Horton actually doesn't change. He's the one character that is steadfast in his belief and it comes from that passion and standing up for what you believe in that changes everybody around him. So every character who comes in contact with Horton, their arc in the story changes.
Their perception of their place in the world and the way that they act is changed by their relationship with Horton. But Horton is steadfast and that's unusual to find in terms of standing up for what you believe in – being true to whatever your faith is. That, I think, is a challenge we all struggle with, and within this story we see an example with Horton. Even in faith of being caged and roped and the threat of the little spec being boiled in Beezle-Nut oil, he stands firm.
deRegnier: Do you choose all your films for message and intent?
Martino: I think that the theme of a movie is very, very important. At the core of what we do if the story is not strong then we're building a house on a weak foundation. I love the craft of animation. I love performance, designing and working with designers to create the world and the experience the audience has, but if the foundation is not strong, if the story is not strong, it's a weak experience for the audience. I think therefore, when we're looking at any project we look at the strength of characters, their relationships, the dynamic of that relationship through the story, and most importantly, the theme. What is that whole experience telling us? What is the message that we walk away with.
The most satisfying movie experiences that I have, are ones where there's a message that I get to walk away with, and maybe I'm wrestling with that for some days or some weeks or months later. I think that's something we look for in the movies we make.
deRegnier: I hope that you go around to schools and talk to children about movies and how you make them and how you choose them, and tell them about all these things that you're telling me.
Martino: It's interesting, I have two daughters so I have been to their school and I've actually been to, I don't know how many. I got into a little circuit when the movie got done, where I had spoken at several elementary schools and then middle school and then high school. Then I've gone back to the college I went to, the University. But what has been interesting is that I have a presentation that I've put together that kind of ties together some of the themes of the movie but also I think it's important for the kids in school to realize that in the making of a film, and in particular the way that we make films, all of the things they're learning in school are elements we use in the making of a movie. We use math, we use science, history. I studied Dr. Seuss and his life and what he was doing.
So I've got my ten-year-old daughter who's in fifth grade who comes home with homework and goes, 'Why do I need to learn this particular thing?' It'll be math or something of that nature. 'I'm never going to need this.' I say, 'You never know.' That's the reason I have gone into the schools and spoken and used all of the various technology in different subjects that they're learning in school actually do go into the making of a movie.
deRegnier: That's fabulous. We all wondered why is this relevant.
What is your next project?
Martino: Well, I've got two projects that I'm very interested in right now. I can't speak to them specifically. I will say, generally, that the theme of a movie is a lot like riding a roller coaster. And I see myself back in the cue, I'm waiting in line for the next roller coaster ride. What that means is I'm actively working with writers. I'm working at Blue Sky Studios in our development department, beginning to shape the very early work for what will hopefully be another movie a couple of years from now.
Theodor Seuss Geisel dedicated Horton Hears a Who "For My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan." Horton never considers how the Who differ from the jungle inhabitants – which come in many species. Horton steps in to help because "A person's a person, no matter how small."
Steve Martino, co-director Jimmy Hayward and 300 others applied their talents, heart and soul to create the feature-length animated film. Martino and Hayward took painstaking care and study to stay true to the original story concept. Early on in development, they journeyed to the Seuss archives at the University of California San Diego where they discovered handwritten notes and some sculptures that helped them recreate Dr. Seuss's visions of the Jungle of Nool and Whoville. From the spirit of the story to the artistry of characters and sets to the music by John Powell, children of all ages can enjoy and appreciate Horton Hears a Who and walk away with thoughts to ponder a day, a week, some months and maybe more.