After a bleak post-Oscar slump of movies not worth watching, our winter of discontent is beginning to thaw. Somewhat. Are you fond of brutal violence? Well, there’s a choice of two new releases from opposite extremes of the art/trash spectrum, Funny Games and Never Back Down respectively. Funny Games, Michael Haneke’s remake of his own sadistic art thriller, is the better movie. But Never Back Down offers a guilty pleasure for fans of mixed martial arts, teen formula and gym-buffed physiques. For more on these two movies, go to my piece in this week’s magazine: Brutality in the eye of the beholder.
For those looking prefer their funny games not to be blood sport, there are two innocuous family comedies to choose from that are a cut above the norm—Doctor Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who, a gentle Hollywood blockbuster, and CJ7, a slice of slapstick sci-fi from Hong Kong.
Doctor Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who
What looks to be the first big hit of 2008 is a sweet, surreal fable that’s better than you might expect. And even though it’s based on a children’s story by Doctor Seuss (Theodore Geisel) first published 54 years ago, it could serve as fodder to both anti-abortion activists and environmentalists. But don’t let that stop you from taking the kids.
This amiable cartoon brings seamless computer animation to the elastic genius of Doctor Seuss, with a pantheon of comics old and new voicing a menagerie of roles—including Jim Carrey, Steve Carrell, Seth Rogen, Amy Poehler and Carol Burnett. Horton is more faithful to the author than previous Seuss incarnations—The Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat—which were live-action movies constructed with make-up, costume and special effects. Animation is a more appropriate medium, allowing a lightness of touch in a realm of infinite possibility.
This jungle fable revolves around a kindly elephant named Horton (Carrey) who hears a faint voice emanating from a speck of dust on a bloom of clover. Horton becomes convinced, correctly, that there is an entire civilization, a place called Whoville, thriving on that speck. All the other animals, of course, think he’s deluded. Through a baroque network of inter-molecular plumbing, Horton learns to communicate with Whoville’s mayor (Carrell), who tries to convince his happy-go-lucky citizens that the place they call home is actually a speck of dust in someone else’s universe and could be doomed if they don’t take action. They, of course, think he’s deluded. The action flips back and forth between the micro and macro realms until . . . well, until the predictable cosmic salvation is achieved in a blaze of quite unpredictable wit.
As a soft and cuddly elephant with puppy-dog eyes, Horton is not unlike any Disney protagonist. And they other animals range from an intolerant kangaroo (in the jungle!) to a storm-trooping armies of apes. But there’s no point getting all hot and bothered about the assignation of human traits to the animal kingdom in a movie that takes anthropomorphic license with microbial life forms on a dust speck. What’s quietly thrilling about this Seuss zoo story is its sublime and extravagant eccentricity. And while the filmmakers have fattened the book’s story with contemporary gags and references, the original template remains in tact — along with those snatches of Dr. Seuss’ inimitable verse, and it all seems blithely modern and ahead of its time.
Of course, these days every animated feature that deals with inter-species contact, from Ice Age to Bee Movie, is an eco fable. And this one’s no exception. As Horton embarks on a Lord of the Rings-like odyssey to transport Whoville to a safe mountaintop haven, he introduces wild swings of micro-climate change on dust-speck planet. Global warming on the head of a pin.
As for the abortion issue, that stems from a phrase in both the book and the movie: “A person’s a person no matter how small.” Several pro-life groups adopted it as a slogan, using it on t-shirts, websites, signs and pamphlets. That aroused the ire of the author’s widow, Audrey Geisel. And in one case, legal action was taken in a Canadian court against a pro-life group that had plundered the phrase.
This live-action feature from Hong Kong is no less far-fetched than the Seuss movie. Starring, written and directed by Stephen Chow—best known for his slapstick martial arts spectacles, Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer—it’s a zany, sentimental fable about a young schoolboy named Dicky (Xu Jiao) and his fuzzy little extra-terrestrial pet. His father, Ti (played by the director) is a dirt-poor laborer who scrimps and saves to send Dicky to an elite elementary school. There, the poor boy is ridiculed and bullied. But one day Dad goes scavenging at the dump and finds a “toy” for his son—the progeny of a flying saucer that morphs into a super-powered alien that’s looks like an cross between Ookpik and Gumby and balls himself into the kid’s backpack like a iBook version of flubber. He’s a modular E.T. that serves as a toy, a pet and an accessory—more than enough for Dicky to impress his friends and put the bullies in their place.
I have no idea what kids will think of CJ7—if they’re up to reading the English subtitles of the Mandarin dialogue. Personally I found it silly but charming. And if nothing else, it’s an object of curiosity as exotic and sophisticated the alien itself. From its whimsical caricatures of Chinese authoritarian patriarchy to its Dickensian portrait of peasant virtue, this cinematic UFO seems light years removed from Hollywood. There’s an extraordinary scene in the boy’s tenement home where he’s killing large cockroaches that are crawling all over his kitchen wall. Real insects or special effects? I didn’t wait until the end of the credits to see if there was an advisory saying that no cockroaches were killed during the making of the movie. Either way, that’s a scene you wouldn’t find in a kiddie movie from America.
But what’s most shocking—and what I didn’t realize until I’d read the press notes after seeing the film—is that the nine-year-old actor playing young protagonist, a kid chosen from 10,000 aspirants, is in fact an actress. Flying saucers, aliens in backpacks, cockroach killings and cross-dressing nine-year-olds. What kind of cultural revolution are they having in Hong Kong?