Is Mel Gibson to blame for ‘Horton’ paranoia?

I grew up enamored with Dr. Seuss books, reading every one I could get my hands on, including “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” which came out after I was an adult. I’ve continued to share these books with my son, Mattias, who responds with similar enthusiasm.

So it was with no small degree of eagerness that I looked forward to taking him to see “Horton Hears a Who” when previews popped up last fall. The animation looked faithful to the book, and I was sure that Mattias and I would have a great time together.

Then I saw the review that appeared in our local paper by MaryAnn Johanson about “Horton,” who said the creator “has turned it into something that looks astonishingly like far-right propaganda about how Christians are a persecuted minority – as if this were 100 A.D. in the Roman Empire – and loudmouthed atheists are ruining everything.”

Had it not been Dr. Seuss, those words alone may have been enough to keep me away. After all, who needs neo-con propaganda wrapped up in a cartoon elephant? True, there’s a more public debate between people of faith and atheists about the validity of organized religion. True, there have been more than a handful of biased portrayals of religion and its prominent figures pitched from both sides of the dividing line. But have we gone too far in reading more divisive subtexts into our films than actually exist?

I think that this wave of hypersensitivity began with Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.” Church communities came out in droves to support the film, and in some ways, the devoutly Catholic – some say fundamentalist – filmmaker and actor created as much controversy as “The Last Temptation of Christ” did some years prior.

The truth is that there has never been a shortage of controversial material in the media regarding faith. However, it almost always has come from the so-called heretics and blasphemers rather than those who defend their faith in the public forum. Not surprising, there has been some push-back from those who feel the pro-faith contingency has either gone too far, or at least is gaining too much of a popular audience.

What has ensued, it seems, is a hypersensitivity from both sides about any potential ulterior motives within any book, film or television show. Is “The Golden Compass” a veiled atheist plot to turn all of our children into zombified unbelievers? Are the “Left Behind” books so publicly embraced that people are taking them as gospel? Is “The Da Vinci Code” the linchpin leading to the demise of the Catholic Church?

There are, in fact, two themes that could potentially be construed as slanted in “Horton.” First is the tenet that there’s some virtue to be had in believing in things we can’t observe. Though this could be construed as pro-religion, the broader context within which Seuss’ book presented this idea is generally benign, as is the take in the film.

Second, the phrase, “a person’s a person, no matter how small” could be inferred as code for pro-lifers, but considering the original book came out in 1954, it’s hard to imagine Horton’s creator was prophetic enough to predict the coming debate about abortion. More consistent with Seuss’ agenda is a general respect for equality, sensitivity and compassion – all values that are hard to argue with, whether one believes in God or not.

It’s a shame when a culture becomes so cynical and paranoid that it can even wring the fun out of “Horton Hears a Who.” Since when did we all become so delicate and threatened by differences of opinions? My greatest concern is not so much that people will be swayed en masse in one direction or another, but rather that producers of mainstream media will become so gun-shy that all of our content will be distilled down to the intellectual equivalent of tap water.

It’s just a movie, people. Go see it or don’t, but enough with the Pollyanna politicking before you suck the fun out of everything.

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