Horton Smears a Seuss

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Dr. Seuss was famously protective of his works–and therefore famously reluctant to allow them to be merchandised. The good Dr. left us in 1991 at the age of 87, and while his passing was neither unexpected or premature, what has befallen his creations since his death is nothing short of tragic.

Seuss authorized few products bearing his characters; today, there’s almost nothing they won’t put the Cat in the Hat or the Grinch on. There are “Dr. Seuss” books he had nothing to do with. The live-action features of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat are legendarily awful. (In one of my last conversations with Maurice Noble, designer of the animated Grinch and a friend of Ted Geisel, he told me about seeing the Carrey film: “When it was over, I just sat there and cried.”

Post-Seuss Seuss hasn’t been nothing but vast wasteland: Nickelodeon’s Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss, for instance, was a TV show he might have approved of, if he’d had the opportunity. And the Seuss section of Orland’s Universal Studios Islands of Adventures theme park is, surprisingly, pretty good and utterly faithful to his spirit. But I can’t imagine anyone other than Audrey Geisel, his widow and the woman who has greenlighted the Strip-Mining of Seuss, arguing that he’d be pleased with what’s been done with his creations over the past seventeen years.

Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino’s Horton Hears a Who! isn’t an insult to his memory on the level of the live-action features. It has its Seussian moments, in fact–glimmers of a pleasing CGI Seuss film that might have been. Overall, though, impudent is the word that comes to mind when I think of this film. How could anyone think they could make a better Horton Hears a Who! than Dr. Seuss did, by making one which often has precious little to do with his characters and story?

On some level, it’s a fundamentally bad idea to turn any Dr. Seuss tale into a feature film. The book is 72 pages in all, dominated, of course, by pictures rather than plot. The movie is an hour and 28 minutes, the majority of which is necessarily devoted to side stories and padding and heavy-handed moralizing. (When Walt Disney made his own elephant movie, also based on a simple story, he was smart enough to make it one of the shortest features he ever produced.)

The moments in Hollywood’s Horton that are actually drawn from the book are its best. I also liked a scene about the Mayor of Whoville’s dozens of daughters that isn’t in the book, but feels like it could have been. But the movie makers have added a sidekick, a bunch of animal kids, an extended anime parody, an REO Speedwagon song, and multiple other elements that have nothing to do with Seuss and everything to do with CGI animated features in 2008. It’s not so much that they haven’t succeeded in keeping true to the Seuss spirit as that they haven’t even tried.

And oh, I forgot: Jim Carrey is the voice of Horton.

I like Jim Carrey, but it’s hard to imagine anyone less well suited to voicing Horton, a character whose entire point is his placid sincerity. The movie Horton smirks and flounces about and yuks it up and generally behaves a lot like Jim Carrey and very little like Horton the elephant. This film could have been meaningfully better if Blue Sky had merely cast a more apprpriate actor as its title pachyderm.

As for the visuals, there are certainly more than a few hints of Seuss’s imagination and wit. But the imposition of “realism” on the Seuss style makes it paradoxically less believable. As with most CGI films–yes, including Pixar ones–there’s show-offy technical work like Horton’s wrinkled skin. The lighting of almost the entire film seems off–it makes no sense to try and shine quasi-realistic lighting into this gloriously fantastic world. (Dr. Seuss knew what he was doing when he wanted to set one scene in the book at night: He simply colored the background dark blue.)

I don’t mean to sound like a complete crabapple here. I’m willing to accept adapted Seuss that’s not absolutely faithful to the original, such as Bob Clampett’s Horton Hatches the Egg and Chuck Jones’s Grinch. (Jones’s own Horton Hears a Who! is a disappointment–bad Seuss and bad Jones.) But the world didn’t need this Horton. And really, it doesn’t need any more Seuss movies, period. (Scary thought: Horton is a hit, and is preceded by a trailer for Blue Sky’s Ice Age 3, which means we may not have seen the last of Jim Carrey in this role.)

Looking on the bright side, there may be no Seuss books left that anyone’s likely to turn into a big-budget feature film. Although I wouldn’t be stunned to wake up one morning and learn that Will Ferrell’s Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! has begun filming…

Sleeping Beauty: Back in the USA

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My PC World colleague Anne McDonald alerted me to this amazing story: A Japanese university has found 250 pieces of original Disney art in a closet, where they’d languished for almost 50 years after being displayed in Japanese department stores in a touring exhibit.

The 1960 show was timed to coincide with the release of Sleeping Beauty, and most of the artwork is from that film. But I bet I’m not the only animation fan who’s more excited to learn that the recovered art includes exquisite cel setups from Flowers and Trees and Pinocchio, as well as art from The Three Little Pigs and Fantasia.

Disney, which had donated the art to a Japanese museum which was so disinterested in it that it gave it to Chiba University (which then stashed it in the closet) isn’t getting stuff back with no strings attached: It’s giving the university prints of the films in question and a million bucks in scholarship funds. Sounds like a good deal to me.

The New York Times has a story by Charles Solomon with more details and a nifty slideshow.

This is the most fascinating story involving cartoons and hidden art since the bizarre 2006 tale of Henry‘s artist squirreling away Norman Rockwell art. And I’m really glad to report Disney news that doesn’t involve Adolf Hitler…

Noble Origins

steppingincover.jpgWhile I wasn’t looking, Bob McKinnon’s Stepping Into the Picture: Cartoon Designer Maurice Noble was published by the University of Mississippi Press. As you may know, I interviewed Maurice in 1991 for Animato (the published piece was also titled “Stepping Into the Picture“), and we then became good friends. But during the many happy hours we spent together over the last decade of his life, we spent far more time talking about the current state of animation than Maurice’s long and illustrious career. So I’m looking forward to reading Bob’s book and learning new facts, when my copy from Amazon.com arrives later this week.

In the meantime, though, I’ve read the excerpt of the first chapter that’s available on Amazon. And I believe that Bob McKinnon has one of the most basic possible facts about Maurice Noble’s life wrong–because it doesn’t jibe with what Maurice told me.

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On page one of Stepping Into the Picture‘s first chapter, McKinnon has Maurice being born on May 1st, 1910 to Almon and Lena Noble. Which was certainly the official version of things, and perhaps the one that Maurice himself believed for most of his life. But sometime in the late 1990s, he told me that his older brother–yes, as he approached his ninetieth birthday, he still had one–had recently informed him that Maurice had been adopted.

Maurice, according to his brother, was kin to the Nobles–but he was the out-of-wedlock offspring of someone else in the family. Back then, that was something that nobody would have wanted to talk about, so hewas taken in by Almon and Lena. It was typical of Maurice that he took this news with poise and good humor–he said that it actually explained why his mother always seemed a little more distant with him than with his siblings. His brother told him all this to get it off his chest while they were both still alive.

Even before he told me he’d learned this, Maurice told me that he didn’t know for sure what day he was born on–but had chosen to commemorate his birth on May 1st. So–combined with McKinnon’s mention of Social Security records that have Maurice being born in 1911, not 1910–it seems reasonable to come to the conclusion that no living person may know much about the exact timing or circumstances of Maurice Noble’s birth.

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(Wikipedia maintains that Maurice was born in 1911, which may well be true. But I’m glad that he chose to celebrate his ninetieth birthday in 2000, when he was in astonishingly good health and surrounded by friends, including me, rather than in 2001, when an unsuccessful operation led to his death on May 18th.)

I don’t, by the way, blame Bob McKinnon for not recounting this in Stepping Into the Picture. I know his research for the book dates at least back to the early 1990s–and I presume that Maurice didn’t tell him about the adoption story. Actually, I don’t know how many people Maurice shared the information with at all, though I suspect he told some or all of the Noble Boys about it. (And I don’t think he’d have any problem with it being more widely known now, almost seven years after he left us, which is why I’m sharing it with you in this post.)

If by chance you know more about Maurice’s parentage and birth than I do, I’d love to hear more…

Anyhow, I loved Maurice Noble as a human being, and there aren’t many things in the whole world of animation I love more than his work. So I’m hoping that Stepping Into the Picture is good. And since it apparently doesn’t have much in the way of illustrations, I hope we get a lavish book of Noble artwork someday–at least one other Noble book is in the works, incidentally, and we may need several to cover every aspect of this exceptionally interesting person and artist.

(The photos of Maurice above don’t have anything specific to do with this post, but I thought you’d enjoy them. The top one was taking during his military service, perhaps during his work with Dr. Seuss on Private Snafu cartoons; Maurice proudly displayed it in his home. The bottom one was taken by me in the Summer of 2000, in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, a favorite Noble haunt; it shows a happy, healthy guy who’s as close to being in his prime than you could possibly imagine a ninety-year-old–or, maybe, an eighty-nine-year-old–being.)