Let me just say first that, I consider Bo Welch's The Cat in the Hat (2003) the worst movie I've seen in my more than ten years of reviewing movies, and Ron Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) is not far behind, and would no doubt rank somewhere in the bottom fifty. Jim Carrey returns from the title role in The Grinch as the voice of the title role in Horton Hears a Who! so I was skeptical at best about the quality of the new film. Not to mention that most CGI animated films not produced by Pixar tend to range from forgettable to awful. What a happy surprise, then, to see one of those rare animated films -- and an even rarer family film -- which ventures into that elusive middle ground, providing wholesome entertainment for kids as well as a few belly laughs for adults.

Directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, both making their feature debut, Horton begins by effortlessly rendering in 3D space that familiar 2D world of Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), with its curvy trees and oval-shaped hills and dales. We meet our hero, Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey), a pachyderm whose personality teeters between dutiful and lazy, helpless and self-reliant, goofy and dedicated. He teaches a class of young animals about various forms of jungle life, but not without a bit of inadvertent, entertaining slapstick. One day, a speck of fluff floats past his sizable ears and he hears a voice emanating from it. He rescues the speck, deposits it on top of a clover and learns that, living upon the speck, is an entire miniature society called Whoville (not to be confused with the Whoville in The Grinch) and run, more or less, by the Mayor (voiced by Steve Carell).

Of course, the jungle is no place for a speck, so Horton vows to relocate the small city to a more secure spot. Trouble comes when he finds that no one believes his story. Worse, the matriarchal busybody Kangaroo (voiced by Carol Burnett) makes it her business to keep Horton from influencing the children of the jungle with his nutty ideas and his "imagination." She goes so far as to hire a ghastly vulture named Vlad (voiced by Will Arnett) to stop him. The climax occurs when the Whos in Whoville must band together to make enough noise so that the big critters can hear them. Adapted from Dr. Seuss' 1954 book by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, the film sticks fairly close to the general arc of the book, and the rest of the 88-minute running time doesn't feel at all like filler. One subplot concerns the Mayor and his one son (out of 92 daughters); the Mayor hopes that the son will take over his position, but the silent, brooding boy -- with a mop of dark hair hanging in his eyes -- has other plans. This is not a particularly deep or revealing emotional arc, but it fits perfectly into the "raise your voice" climax.

The other main arc is fairly slippery, as it deals with the question of faith, and possibly a religious belief in a higher power. The idea of faith without proof has started wars in real life, and it certainly gets the ball rolling in Horton. Both Horton and the Mayor tell people that they've heard from and spoken to a voice from beyond, and they're treated like outcasts, like crazy people (see also Joan of Arc). The Kangaroo angrily asserts that if you can't touch it, see it or hear it, it doesn't exist. (Thankfully the Kangaroo has a son -- voiced by Josh Flitter -- whom she keeps safely in her pouch, who forms a system of checks and balances: "Mom, don't do this! You're so weird!") But the catch is that the majority of the characters don't believe in the voices until they've heard proof. Because of this, I suspect that Seuss was not advocating any kind of religion specifically, but something more like tolerance of different beliefs. (This gibes with his other liberal stories, like The Lorax and The Sneeches.) Thankfully, the movie clues into this and doesn't preach anything, either.

Carrey is perhaps the main reason the film works so well; he gives a delightfully laid-back performance, comfortable in his elephant skin and far funnier than he has been in years. He seems less manic or desperate here; maybe this is a new forum for his talents. Carell is still too wound-up, akin to his obnoxious performances in Evan Almighty and Dan in Real Life, but Carrey's golden touch soon rubs off and he slows down too. The film uses lots of rising star comics, such as Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Dan Fogler and Amy Poehler, in throwaway roles, but it's the unexpected turns, like Burnett's or Jaime Pressly's as a gossipy jungle bird, that sweep the movie along. Still, Horton doesn't escape without one very Carrey moment during which the movie switches to 2D, hand-drawn animation, but it's a pretty good joke, so I won't give it away. Mostly it's Carrey's screwball timing on his line readings that had me laughing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have an addendum: I brought my 22-month old son to the Saturday morning press screening of this, his first feature-length movie in the theater. I was alone with him and I was fully prepared to bail out of the movie if he became fussy or frightened. Amazingly, he sat, enraptured and quiet, throughout the entire film. My astonishment, joy and pride may have colored my experience somewhat, but even considering this, I'm still confidently recommending Horton Hears a Who! without reservation.