It’s a sure bet that when Theodor S. Geisel took pen in hand to create “Horton Hears a Who,” he never imagined an army of 70 computer animators would revisit his story five decades later.
With today’s release of “Horton Hears a Who,” the late children’s author enters the digital age. The film, produced by Blue Sky Studios for 20th Century Fox, marks the first time a Dr. Seuss tale has been told in computer animation.
Animators at the White Plains, N.Y., studio worked on high-performance Angstrom computers to breathe life into Horton the Elephant, Kangaroo and the mayor of tiny Whoville.
Designers were allowed access to Geisel’s archives to recreate the beloved 1954 story about an elephant trying to protect the inhabitants of a microscopic town that resides on a speck of dust.
“Horton Hears a Who” marks the third time in recent years that Hollywood has attempted to capture the Seussian spirit. Two earlier efforts, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” in 2000 and “The Cat in the Hat” three years later, received less-than-flattering reviews.
David Torres, a lead animator at Blue Sky Studios, believes the folly was in trying to make live-action versions of Dr. Seuss stories.
“I think 3-D (animation) is the best medium to bring Seuss to life. I never thought live action was the way to go,” Torres says.
“In live-action, you are just putting makeup on people. We can change the proportions of their bodies – longer arms and short legs. We have characters walking around on their hands and mowing the roofs of their homes.”
As the lead animator responsible for Horton, Torres had to create a character who walked at times on four legs and other times on two.
“Going into it, we thought Horton was an elephant and it would be easy, but it wasn’t,” he says. “We ended up treating him more like a bear.”
Horton was given varied facial expressions, Torres said, since his voice is provided by the energetic comic actor Jim Carrey.
Torres, who has been with Blue Sky Studios for eight years, worked on such animated fare as “Ice Age: The Meltdown” and “Robots.”
He counts animators Walt Disney, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones as among his heroes. Coincidentally, Jones collaborated with Geisel on cartoon versions of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Horton Hears a Who” in 1966 and 1970, respectively.
For the new film, Horton’s story has been expanded to fill 86 minutes of screen time. While some additions may rankle purists, Torres does not believe that the movie departs from the central story in the manner that the live-action versions of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” or “The Cat in the Hat” did.
“I think we’ve achieved a fine balance. There is a pressure to be true to the books,” he says.
“We do have artistic license, but all of the artwork had to be approved by Audrey (S. Geisel, the author’s widow).”
Audrey Geisel says she, too, was unhappy with “The Cat in the Hat,” starring Mike Myers. But she had nothing but praise for the animated “Horton,” which was recently screened for her.
She called Blue Sky Studios’ animation “very definitive … very clear and very positive,” adding she was also impressed by the voice work done by Carrey as Horton and Carol Burnett as Kangaroo.
“I think the work is just splendid,” Audrey Geisel said. “The whole product is very special.”
As for Carrey, who also played the Grinch, he’s not necessarily through with Seuss yet.
“I’m working up a good star-bellied Sneetch,” he says, “just in case.”