We kick off our extended school holiday movie coverage with what's likely to be the animated hit of the season. Jim Carrey talks to Amy Longsdorf about bringing another Dr Seuss character to life in Horton Hears a Who!
If any actor seems tailor-made for cartoons, it's Jim Carrey. Not since the heyday of Robin Williams has a performer been able to stretch his voice like so much sonic silly putty to fit a wide range of characters.
Unlike Williams, Carrey has always resisted the lure of animation. But for Horton Hears a Who!, the actor finally makes an exception and lends his tonsil power to his first cartoon.
"I was honoured they asked me," says Carrey, who also played the title character in the live-action adaptation of Dr Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
"I'm also honoured that when the producers approached Audrey Geisel [the widow of Dr Seuss a.k.a Theodor Geisel], the first thing out of her mouth was, `Can you get Jim Carrey?' I'm just happy she wants me to be a part of the Dr Seuss legacy."
The Seuss legacy is a formidable one. Geisel's books are considered classics. Decades after they were first published, The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are still best-selling titles.
Horton Hears a Who! was one of Geisel's most inspired creations. In the movie version, Carrey gives voice to the title character, an imaginative elephant who hears a cry for help coming from a speck of dust floating through the air.
The speck turns out to be home to the Whos, microscopic creatures who live in Whoville and are presided over by a frantic mayor (Steve Carrell). Horton is determined to help save the tiny townsfolk even though his friends and neighbours are convinced he's a couple peanuts short of a pack.
The voice cast is rounded out by Carol Burnett, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, Isla Fisher and Dane Cook.
As with The Grinch, Horton Hears a Who! was initially animated by Chuck Jones for a 70s TV special. The movie version, which employs computer-generated imagery, is the work of the East Coast-based Blue Sky Animation of Ice Age fame.
For Carrey, the experience of making his first cartoon was eye-opening.
"These guys come to your house and say, `This is going to be the simplest process in the world' and they lie to you, completely lie to you," he says. "It's hard work. You sit in a room and you jam and come up with ideas and funny lines. It's an amazing process. You think, `How is this ever going to make sense?' But it does.
"The best thing about doing an animated film is you're surrounded by artists who are just as creative - or more creative - than you are. Just to spew something out and have somebody put wings on it - it's fantastic. Besides, I love being handled by nerds."
Lead animator Dave Torres credits Carrey with subtly changing the notion of what Horton should look like.
"In early stages Horton had a smaller mouth," says the cartoonist. "But when Jim came onboard, the character became very expressive; in fact, Jim led us to push the bounds of expressiveness for an animated character."
Over the course of his two-decade film career, Carrey has embodied dozens of larger-than-life characters, including a space alien (Earth Girls are Easy) a psychotic electrician (The Cable Man), a schizophrenic (Me, Myself & Irene), the Riddler (Batman Forever), an evil foster father (Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events) and God (Bruce Almighty). Playing a jungle elephant was just another day at the office for Carrey.
"I thought of peanuts on my breath," says the actor, 46. "I figured I would always be munching on nuts. I also wanted to be the type of elephant who didn't realise he was enormous and bulky. He was light as a feather, a dancer."
One of the reasons Carrey agreed to Horton was because he was so in sync with the message of the movie. "A person is a person no matter how small" is a theme which resonated with the actor.
"I know I'm a speck, absolutely," he says. "That's honestly how I feel. I'm an interesting speck but that's how I've always thought of myself. How can you look at the night sky and not feel like a speck?"
Like Horton, Carrey says he's always been an outsider. The comedian reckons his sense of alienation began when he was in his early teens and his father lost his job as an accountant.
The Carreys were forced to move out of their comfortable Ontario home and live in a campervan. To make money, the whole family worked as night janitors at a factory. Carrey, once an excellent student, turned into a no-hoper overnight.
It wasn't until he was 15 that he began to see a way out of his predicament. Regular gigs at Yuk Yuk's Comedy Club put money in Carrey's pocket and gave him a much-needed form of self-expression. At 19, he packed up and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked steadily as a stand-up comic before landing roles on TV and in movies.
"I've always been drawn to stories that are different," says Carrey. "I felt odd anyway, as a child, so anything odd I encountered, I went, `Oh, those are my people. I dig these people.'
"I was the baby of the family. I guess my father was strange. He was funny and strange and I looked at him and went, `Wow, everybody is laughing at my Dad.' And I just immediately kind of wanted to be that, so I locked myself in my room. When all the other kids were outside playing, I was devising ways to make myself appear to be different, somehow."
Despite his enormous success with $100 million hits like Dumb and Dumber, Liar, Liar, Bruce Almighty and The Mask, Carrey maintains he still feels like a bit of a freak.
"It's hard to have a perspective on [success] from inside myself," he says. "I just feel like I could be working at a factory again in a month or two, just like when I started out. I always feel like I'm just going from one movie to the next.
"But I do try to go to work and have fun with what is in front of me. Hopefully that translates. Even today, I'm trying to enjoy every journalist that crosses my path. I try to live in the moment."
At the moment, Carrey is filming A Christmas Carol due out in December 2009. Directed by Robert Zemeckis using motion-capture technology, the animated film will allow the comic actor to embody Ebenezer Scrooge as well as a handful of other roles.
"What's cool is that I'm playing Scrooge at four different ages," says Carrey. "I'm also playing past, present, and future ghosts. So there's some enormous challenges for me."
What: Horton Hears a Who! - Dr Seuss gets the CGI animated treatment courtesy of the folks who brought us Ice Age, with the motormouth skills of Jim Carrey, Steve Carrell and others
Where & when: NZ Premiere, Auckland Zoo, tomorrow, 7pm. Opens in cinemas Thursday, April 17
Aimed at: 5-year-olds through to early teens and those who grew up on the Seuss books