I took our kids to see the film adaptation of "Horton Hears a Who" yesterday. I'd heard that it was fairly faithful to the book - at least much more so than some recent abominations of Dr. Seuss, including "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" and "The Cat in the Hat." And it was fairly true to the story, though it was some of the departures that struck me as not only gratuitous, but containing a disturbing agenda that was finally at odds with the lesson of Seuss's book.
I was first jarred by a passing reference by Kangaroo, who we are told early on is the oppressive enforcer of rules in the jungle. On hearing of the excitement of some of the smaller animals about being friends with Horton, she dismissively proclaims, "Oh, I don't allow Rudy to roam around with just anyone. He's pouch-schooled." Already we are given the intimation that home-schoolers are oppressive authoritarians - a reference I thought might be the end of things, but turned out only to be the start.
As the film proceeds, Kangaroo makes it her personal mission to destroy the Clover - and dust speck which rests upon it. In a culminating scene, Kangaroo addresses the assembled jungle animals and incites them to detain and imprison Horton, and to destroy the clover. She exclaims that "these supposed other people can't be seen or heard. If Horton succeeds in persuading people that they exist, it will lead to a breakdown of authority and a descent into anarchy! Let's put him in a cage and destroy the clover!!" Copy on the film's website suggests that she fears that "non-conformity and anarchy are minutes away from turning their ordered life into chaos." There can be no doubting that we are to understand that she is the jungle's equivalent of an Evangelical Christian: small-minded, oppressive, an opponent of imagination, liberation, and autonomy.
But here's what's peculiar: Horton is a defender of life - even life that is too small to be seen. He is a faithful defender of the helpless, frail, and weak. "I said what I meant, and meant what I said: an elephant's faithful, one-hundred percent." And, most famously, his mantra is: "A person's a person, no matter how small."
The movie shows us, then, an analogue for Hollywood's understanding of Evangelical Christians engaged in fierce persecution of a pro-life Elephant (a Republican, no less??!). Hollywood's only way to explain Kangaroo's hatred of Horton is to make her into a version of today's conservative, all the while missing the complicating point that Horton's defense of unseen life is best understood to be the modern analogue of the same conservative Christians. But, this is perhaps finally less a confused and contradictory message than it might appear to be: rather, by emphasizing that the hatred of Horton is ascribable to small-minded conservatism, it detracts any potential attention from the fact that the character for whom the audience is to cheer - the faithful elephant - might otherwise have been seen as admirable precisely because of his defense of life, "no matter how small."