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Illustrating a Hollywood happy ending

Email|Print| Text size + By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / March 9, 2008

What Horton the elephant hears in the Dr. Seuss story about him is, of course, a Who. What 20th Century Fox hopes to hear with the movie adaptation, "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!," which opens Friday and features the voices of Jim Carrey and Steve Carell, is something quite different: the reassuring rustle of runaway box-office receipts.

That's what Hollywood has always wanted to hear when it adapts children's stories - and why it's adapted so many of them. What's notable about "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" (the film title adds the author's name, as if to provide a pedigree) is that it marks the latest instance of an increasingly common development in Hollywood's ever-eager pursuit of the family market: the return of the illustrated children's book.

Using children's picture books and illustrated novels as inspiration is nothing new for Hollywood. Several of the most beloved early Disney animation features originated that way. Yet the past few years have seen picture books come to the screen as never before. As a source of family-oriented films they've been exceeded only by fantasy titles ("The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the Harry Potter books, the "Narnia" series, "The Golden Compass").

Seussian cinema, as one might call illustrated-book-derived movies, has practically become its own genre: "The Cat in the Hat" (2003) and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (2000), among others, preceded "Horton." No doubt this movie connection would please Seuss, who, as Major Theodor Geisel, headed the animation division of Frank Capra's Armed Forces Picture unit during World War II.

Rivaling Seuss as king of the illustrated-book movie genre is Chris van Allsburg. There have been adaptations of his books "Jumanji" (1995), "The Polar Express" (2004), and "Zathura" (2005). Like Seuss, van Allsburg has a Hollywood sojourn in his background: He was a layout designer on Disney's "The Little Mermaid" (1989).

The genre may have rival kings, but there's no argument over who its 800-pound gorilla is - or, rather, 800-pound ogre. The three movies featuring the title character of William Steig's 1990 picture book, "Shrek!," have had worldwide grosses of $1.6 billion. And in a rare instance of Hollywood restraint, "Shrek" (2001), "Shrek 2" (2004), and "Shrek the Third" (2007) made all that money minus Steig's exclamation mark.

Almost since the movies began, there have been adaptations of both fairy tales (the pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès made the first screen version of "Cinderella" - in 1899!) and children's classics ("Heidi" made its movie debut in 1920). And it was a fairy tale that Walt Disney turned to for his first feature-length animated film, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937).

Fairy tales were triply attractive for Disney: high name recognition, time-tested material, and no royalties. (Be aware that literary skill is only one element in the enduring multimedia appeal of the Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose, and Hans Christian Andersen.) Disney would also later make feature-length animated versions of "Cinderella" (1950) and "Sleeping Beauty" (1959). And when, after years of dormancy, his namesake company returned to feature animation, it played things safe with "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast" (1991). Even so, the three animated features that proved "Snow White" wasn't a fluke were all based on illustrated children's books: "Pinocchio" (1940), "Dumbo" (1941), and "Bambi" (1942).

"Bambi" was based on Felix Salten's 1923 German-language story "Bambi: A Life in the Woods." Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss's accuser, translated it into English. So who knows, maybe it was the Red Scare that made Hollywood look elsewhere for animation sources. More likely, though, it was the rise of television and its insatiable appetite for children's programming - an appetite fed by such low-end animation suppliers as Hanna-Barbera, as well as Disney's cannibalizing of its library and turning to both nature and live-action films.

Still, it was Disney that pointed the way back with "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" (1977), which expanded on the earlier short "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day" (1968). If anything, E.H. Shepard's original illustrations were more important to the two films (and the several that have followed) than A.A. Milne's text. Pooh, in fact, might be described as the father - all right, papa bear - of Hollywood's return to the illustrated book.

The depressing thing about the genre is how it invariably abandons one of the most cherishable elements of the books it draws on: their elegant simplicity of storytelling. Picture books and illustrated stories are storyboards waiting to happen, it's true. Alas, they are storyboards for shorts, not features. Steig's "Shrek!" is all of 32 pages. No wonder that Dreamworks Animation, filling out the plots of the three movies, has pillaged countless fairy tales and classic children's stories - not to mention Steig's own canon. (How much does the existence of Eddie Murphy's Donkey character in the series owe to the title quadruped in "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble"?)

In filling out the narratives for the screen, so much of the charm, grace, and character of the books' storytelling gets lost. The "Shrek" movies are the worst offender, but at least they somewhat make up for it with their perfervid inventiveness. The creepiest, and thus the least excusable, is "The Polar Express," with its weirdly animatronic computer graphics.

Perhaps a modest proposal is in order. Not surprisingly, it involves the current gold standard of Hollywood animation, Pixar. Pixar began by making shorts, and it has released each of its features (all of which come from original stories) with a preceding short. Those shorts are part of what make Pixar special, and their popularity is not to be doubted.

So why not try a feature-length release consisting of a series of animated shorts all drawn from the same author? Imagine the machine-aided machinery Pixar could bring off for a set of Virginia Lee Burton's books: the locomotive in "Choo, Choo" (and you thought Andrei Konchalovsky made a "Runaway Train"), the excavator in "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel," the plow in "Katy and the Big Snow," the San Francisco trolley in "Maybelle the Cable Car." None of these marvelous stories would work at feature length - not, anyway, if a film were to retain the flavor and idiosyncrasy of the book - but together they could be terrific.

Or better yet, imagine what marvels of motion and imagination might come from a feature-length anthology of some of the works of Peter Sis (who, as it happens, began as an animator, in his native Czech Republic). Traveling south, it could go from the polar regions of "A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North" to the Prague of "The Three Golden Keys," the Himalayan splendors of "Tibet through the Red Box," and reach a tropical-island conclusion with "Komodo!" Listen closely and you might hear the ghost of Dr. Seuss urging on such a project: Oh, the places you'll go!

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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