By Linc Leifeste | March 1, 2012
Directors: Chris Renaud, Kyle Balda
Writers: Ken Daurio (screenplay), Cinco Paul (screenplay), Dr. Seuss (book)
Starring: Danny DeVito, Ed Helms, Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, Betty White, Rob Riggle, Jenny Slate
Let me get a few things out of the way up front. First, I love Dr. Seuss’ books. That love stems from my own childhood memories of countless readings of classics such as Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat In The Hat and has even managed to survive the innumerable times I’ve had to read Fox in Socks and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish to my two young sons. Second, the track record of adapting Seuss’ books to the big screen has been abhorrent in my estimation, ranging from the appalling (the live-action Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas) to the mediocre (the animated Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!). Third, I probably read The Lorax as a child but it’s not currently in my children’s’ library so I wasn’t overly familiar with it going in and didn’t have much in the way of expectations.
The preteen hero of the story, Ted (Zac Efron), lives in Thneedville, a completely manufactured and artificial but oh-so-bright-and-shiny city but seems to be none the worse (or he at least appears healthy and happy) for never experiencing real live trees or grass or wildlife. It’s not until Audrey (Taylor Swift), the neighborhood girl he has a crush on, reveals her dreams of seeing a real living tree that Ted becomes motivated to search one out. In response to his queries, his Grammy Norma (Betty White) is soon suggesting he slip out of Thneedville to seek out the mysterious Once-ler (Ed Helms). Soon he’s found a way out of the completely contained artificial city, which attracts the unwanted attention of Mr. O’Hare (Rob Riggle), the pint-sized corporate overlord of Thneedville, who has made his fortune bottling and selling air.
The contrast between the bright and shiny artificial environment of Thneedville and the post-apocalyptic outside world, with its dark smoggy skies and stump-laden denuded landscape, is striking. It’s not long before Ted finds the mysterious and seemingly sinister Once-ler, who decides to share his story with Ted in chapters over repeat visits. It seems that Thneedville was once a natural beauty, populated with friendly animals and an abundance of gorgeous Truffula trees. But when a young Once-ler showed up to make a fortune for himself at the expense of that natural beauty, the Lorax (Danny DeVito), protector of the trees, showed up to dissuade him. Undeterred, the Once-ler proceeded with his plans and secured his own fortune by manufacturing and selling a product (Thneeds) that nobody needed but everybody wanted, destroying the environment in the process and leading to the current sad state of affairs. But it seems that the Once-ler still has a seed of a hope for a better tomorrow and it’s up to Ted to set things right. Of course, he’ll have to outsmart the sinister Mr. O’Hare and his muscle-bound goons to make that happen.
As seems to be the norm these days, there have been at least a few voices from the round-the-bend right (I’m looking at you, Lou Dobbs) that have decried The Lorax as part of a continuing effort to brainwash America’s children into despising capitalism and loving nature. These same voices crying in the wilderness preached to the chosen few about The Muppets as well. Such silliness aside, the film is preachy and the message hits you over the head, although it’s hard to find too much fault with a message that decries greed and pollution. No, the problem is with the messenger, not the message. To put it plainly, while there are a number of funny moments in the film and it will probably be enjoyed by the preteen and early teen audience it’s being marketed to, I found myself as often as not slightly annoyed by the characters. From the Once-ler’s younger electric guitar carrying buffoonery to mini-Mr. O’Hare with his Moe-like bowl cut and his hulking helpers to Ted’s quirky grandmother to Ted himself, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching something not really meant for me (I should have known I wasn’t the intended audience when I saw Zac Efron’s and Taylor Swift’s names appear). Where the film shines (even if only slightly) is in its most visually Seussian moments, when the story is focused on the Once-ler’s destruction of the trees and the Lorax’s efforts to save them (sadly the Lorax is more of a supporting character than the lead). While it seems the most frequent comparison being made is to Wall-e I couldn’t help but be reminded more of 1992’s Frosty Returns, both because of plot similarities and mediocrity, but sadly The Lorax doesn’t have the nostalgic benefit of being twenty years old or brilliantly bizarre casting along the lines of John Goodman or Jonathan Winters. I will give the film credit; it has inspired me to pick up a copy of the book to read with my boys but it’s also left me hoping they don’t someday decide we need to add the movie to our collection as the thought of endless viewings leaves me feeling testy as Lou Dobbs.