Horton Hears a Who!

“We will put the speck on Mount Nool before the end of this decade.”

Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! is an animated film adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ animal fantasy picturebook Horton Hears a Who! (1954). It stays true to the original with a few minor changes. The elephant Horton hears a sound coming from a speck of dust on a clover. He realizes the speck is inhabited, containing an entire city of people. Being a teacher, Horton begins sharing this discovery with students in the Jungle of Nool. This angers the Sour Kangaroo, who dismisses the idea of anyone living on a speck of dust as nonsense. She tries to force Horton to deny the discovery and stop teaching it to children. When Horton refuses, she incites other parents and the community to force Horton to give up the clover. Horton refuses again. In the meantime, the Mayor of Who-ville is having similar problems trying to convince the Who-villes’ City Council and the community that their world is a speck of dust on a flower carried by an elephant in the sky. Like Horton, he is dismissed as crazy. As hostility toward Horton grows, he realizes that the speck is in danger and decides to deliver it to a safe place on top of Mount Nool. He is pursued by Kangaroo’s henchbird, Vlad Vladikoff, and then captured by an angry mob. He never gives up on saving the Whos’ world. By that time, thanks to the Mayor’s initiative, the Whos are able to hear Horton’s voice. They realize the truth about the danger to their world. As the speck is about to be boiled in oil, the Whos unite and create such racket that their voice is heard by everyone in the Jungle of Nool. The Kangaroo’s son returns the clover to Horton. The entire community, including the Sour Kanagroo, rallies to support Horton in saving the Whos’ world. 

Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! offers several openings for discussing climate change denialism, the difficulty of grasping the scale and effects of climate change, and the need for courageous climate activism which is necessary to help communities grasp the urgency of the climate emergency to enact a large-scale societal transformation and achieve climate justice. One analogue to denialism is the Sour Kangaroo’s dismissal of Horton’s discovery, which is so new and strange that the community initially sides with the Kangaroo. As she insists, “You will not breathe a word of this lie to anyone, especially the children. I don’t want you poisoning their minds with this nonsense” (10). Another is the plotline set in Who-ville, where the Mayor’s claims are met with denial and ridicule too. You may want to show the scene when the Mayor attempts to declare the state of emergency, but is overruled by the Council, which assures the community that everything is just dandy (53-57). This scene also offers a good metaphor for denialism and misinformation campaigns funded by Big Oil, including twisting evidence of climate change to support the dismissal. For example, the Council’s interprets the strange wind in Whos’ world—caused by Vlad snatching the clover from Horton—not as proof that their world is a speck floating in space but as proof that it’s time for the kite-flying race. It takes a series of extraordinary weather events—one of the first being snowfall in the summer, when the clover is left outside overnight and frosts over (46-49)—to convince the Whos that their world is in danger. Both plots show how new discoveries challenge the entrenched status quo and how even well-intentioned people find it easier to defend the way things are rather than confront the difficult truth and change.

Many episodes in the film can be used to help spark discussions about the large-scale effects of climate change, including extreme weather events, that are invisible or incomprehensible when considered from a local perspective. Consider scenes when Horton nearly falls of a bridge, which causes a minor earthquake in Who-ville when the Mayor is having a root canal (32-35), a tilting of the Who’s world when Horton hangs from a tree (52-53), and another nearly-catastrophic earthquake that nearly destroys Who-ville when Horton dances in joy (1:02). The key idea in the book, that a person’s a person no matter how small, is less central to the film but can be used to open up conversations about climate justice: how our actions impact people elsewhere; about the rights of nature, animal rights, the world’s aliveness, and the rights of all beings to stable planetary environments.

Another climate literacy topic in Horton Hears a Who! is the affirmation of the need for courageous climate activism. Unlike in the book, the filmic Horton is a teacher, which highlights the role of education to bring about new understandings, like in the opening scene about leaf insects (4-5). His Who-ville counterpart, the Mayor, represents the responsibility of public officials to truth and well-being of their communities. Another addition in the film is the character of a scientist, Dr. Larue from Who U. She concludes that if their world was a speck of dust floating in space, they would experience inexplicable tremors, dramatic changes in the weather, and—unless they reach a stable state—possibly a destruction of their world (25-26). However, the film shows that science has little power to convince societies to change their beliefs. It is primarily through the Mayor’s activism that the Whos realize the truth. When the Whos recognize the planetary emergency, they unite and start chanting “We are here” (1:10-23). Their society is transformed. The moment of transformation happens a bit later in the Jungle of Nool, but there too Horton’s activist persistence is the key. One scene that highlights the importance of youth climate activism is when Rudy, the Kangaroo’s son, defies his mother, the leading denier in the Nool world. As she is about to drop the clover into a vat of boiling oil—an interesting analogy to destruction of the world through global warming—the Kangaroo snaps “This does not concern you. Back in your pouch.” But the destruction of a world, does concern Rudy. Like his analogue in the Who-world, JoJo, he takes action and delivers the clover back to Horton.

The films ends with reconciliation between Horton and the Sour Kangaroo, following which the entire community helps Horton take the speck to the top of Mt. Nool. The Whos’s world is safe. In the last scene, the camera zooms out, showing that the jungle of Nool is also another speck in the universe that contains other specks, perhaps even planet Earth. The message is that we need collective action to care for all beings in all worlds. ©2023 ClimateLit (Marek Oziewicz)

Publisher: Blue Sky Studios, 2008

Pages: 87 min.


Audience: Little People (4-7), Questers (8-13)

Format: Films

Topics: Activism, Animal Rights, Big Oil, Climate Action, Climate Change, Climate Change Denial, Climate Emergency, Climate Justice, Collective Action, Earth's Aliveness, Ecosystems, Environmental Destruction, Extreme Weather Events, Global Warming, Misinformation Campaigns, Rights of Nature, Youth Climate Activism