Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #6

Re: Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! (2008)

I am disappointed with Horton’s portrayal of homeschooling. (They added a lot that wasn’t in the book.) The main “evil” character is the kangaroo — a narrow-minded, controlling homeschooling mom who wants to destroy Horton and his new found friends because of it’s threat to the way things are in their jungle society.

Horton is a teacher of jungle kids — fun and silly. The kangaroo’s son asks sadly from her pouch “Mom, why can’t I play with the other kids?” and she explains to the other moms that she “Pouch-schools” and is portrayed as a narrow-minded, cold, controlling fanatic who is constantly telling her son to “go to his room” as she shoves his head down into her pouch and tells him continually that whatever is happening doesn’t concern him. It is very clear that her motives throughout the film were not done out of love for her child, but out of a desperate need to control ideas and keep the authority/tradition of her world from being threatened.

It seems to me you may be missing the forest for the tree.

To begin with, there is no “portrayal of homeschooling” in Horton. What there is, is one (1) throwaway gag alluding to homeschooling — a sour line, as I noted in my review.

The kangaroo is narrow-minded and controlling. That’s straight out of the book (though of course they did add a lot, necessarily, since the book takes about ten minutes tops to read aloud, and that’s doing different voices and stuff).

The film’s kangaroo is also, let it be noted, an empiricist skeptic who repeatedly declares that nothing you can’t see, hear or touch is real, and is equally dismissive of the notion of larger worlds of cosmic mystery and wonder, with incomprehensible beings far greater than we, as she is of the notion of persons too tiny to be seen whose dignity and lives must nevertheless be respected. And Horton’s openness to both drives her crazy.

Who does that look like a parody of? Conservative Christian homeschooling parents? As a father of five homeschooled kids, I can’t say I ever felt it was my ox being gored here, except for that one line. No, the kangaroo looks much more like an angry secularist, hostile to mystery, inconvenient moral duties and forms of insight outside the scope of her reductive epistomology — and determined to stamp out competing worldviews by any means necessary.

Note, too, the basically happy and affectionately portrayed (though not perfect) family of the Who Mayor, an enormous family with 96 girls and one boy. Whatever the foibles of the Mayor and his culture, the Mayor and his family are basically sympathetic, and while there are suggestions that he might do better to let his son do his own thing and give a little more individual attention to this daughters, there’s no whiff of anti-natalist contempt of large families here.

It’s hard to count all the positives in this little film. The absolute authority of conscience, and the necessity of being true to one’s convictions in the face of social resistance. The uncompromising character of moral truth; the gravity of keeping one’s word and honoring one’s commitments. (“Just this once, be faithful 99 percent of the time!” Morton wheedles. “I mean, I’ve never gone 99 percent on anything, and I think I’m awesome!”) The responsibility even of children, as noted in the Catechism, constrained by conscience, to disobey morally flawed orders from authority figures, even their parents.

The willingness to “look both ‘up’ and ‘down,’” as my friend and colleague Peter Chattaway put it in his blog, “to humble ourselves and see ourselves as small, yet also to see the greatness that exists in others who we may find all too easy to dismiss.” (Peter goes on to note that “Appropriately, the former point is emphasized with a ‘God shot’ that looks straight down on Horton himself from a heavenly height.”)

Community solidarity and responsibility — the whole Who populace pulling together to affirm “We are here! We are here! We are here!” Democracy and civic responsibility in action.

A ringing pro-life message, clearly intentional in the source material, with an obvious anti-abortion connection that appears not to be intentional but is no less valid for that (and strikingly reinforced by Horton’s earlier pro-life struggle in Horton Hatches the Egg, which unambiguously deals with embryonic life). As the pastoral instruction Communio et Progressio notes, part of the critic’s role involves discovering “in works of art meaning and riches that may have escaped even the artists themselves.”

(Spoiler warning.) And then, capping everything else, Horton forgives his enemy — has compassion even on the sour kangaroo, once she has been humbled, and unhesitatingly welcomes her back into the community. Not for this film the gleeful humiliation and ostracization of a demonized authority figure. No one is beyond forgiveness, grace, even cookies.

Horton is delightful, wholesome family entertainment: funny, well-done, morally solid, and genuinely entertaining for both kids and adults. It would be a real mistake to allow one line, or generalized political concerns around authority and so forth, to sour us on exactly the kind of film we ought to be warmly welcoming.

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