Dr. Seuss was ahead of his time. A flat-out creative innovator. Cementing his trademark wild and free renderings and rhyming linguistic liberties, 1957's "The Cat in the Hat" brought mainstream children's books into the realm of absurd yet agreeable anarchy. There were many great books in the surrounding years, but with 1971's "The Lorax", the good doctor delivered a moral tale of levelheaded environmentalism before there were such things as eco-politics and environmental activism. And perhaps since Seuss (actually Theodor Seuss Geisel) was quoted having said, "kids can see a moral coming a mile off," he boldly left the tale unresolved, with only the possibility of hope. A few years later, the author teamed with his friend, animation genius Chuck Jones, to faithfully and memorably adapt "The Lorax" into an animated short.
Cut to now: The makers of "Despicable Me" (a fine and funny film in its own right) have seen fit to take on "The Lorax" via three dimensional computer animation. The result is a clearly pained effort to please everyone. The film strives to be loyal to the source material, but also wants to pander to children in an obnoxiously modern, completely non-Seuss-ian way. Even if one is unfamiliar with the book (and one shouldn't ever need to be familiar with source material in order to enjoy an adaptation), this clashing dichotomy breeds failure at the core of the movie. These filmmakers may understand that Dr. Seuss' sensibility was wacky, but the adaptation they ended up making is tonally whacked. Now we have Dr. Seuss in 3D, reminding us that he wasn't just ahead of his time - he's in your face!!! The wizened old Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito, reasonably typecast) may look the same in his CG form, but this version is loud and combative whereas the original was all about slow-burn truth saying and passive justice. We know that eventually, the Once-ler gives Ted the very last seed of the very last tree. But what happens after that? A crazy 3D high speed chase, of course!
The actual story of the film is all-new, consisting of a young boy named Ted's (voice of Zac Efron) quest to win the heart of a girl (Audrey, doing little more than enabling the plot, voiced by Taylor Swift) by bringing her a rarely glimpsed, perhaps mythical thing called a "tree". They all live in a "Truman Show"-like domed, sealed town called Thneedville that is completely artificial, right down to the inflatable bushes and light bulb trees that adorn the yards. Ted's mother explains to him how a light bulb tree is superior to a real tree by shifting the light colors at the push of a button: "We have winter, spring, summer... and disco!" (Needle-drop "The Hustle" as a glitter ball emerges and she does a little dance. Yeah.)
Corporate greed has come a long way since 1971, and the filmmakers acknowledge that with a newly created villain, a sawed-off mogul named Mr. O'Hare (Rob Riggle). O'Hare has mastered the art of creating circular corporate dependence with his O'Hare Air, a company that is too big to fail. (A sign says so!) O'Hare has made a fortune selling clean air to the people of smog-filled Thneedville, and now has a plan to push it to the next level by selling them bottled air (since market research shows that people will buy something if it's in a plastic bottle), a product of his factories that are directly responsible for the smog in the first place. As long as everyone stays happy in their domed city with their fake trees - and no real ones, since they make clean air on their own! - all will continue as is, and Mr. O'Hare will only grow richer. Unlike the Once-ler's downfall, there is no finite end to his raw materials - he's literally selling people nothing. Eco-irresponsibility was the Once-ler's weakness, actual knowledge and a motivated populace is O'Hare's. Any way you look at it, it's all greed-driven - and kids can see that from a mile away.
As Ted must go convince the banished Once-ler to help him in his quest, the film becomes a sort of "The Silence of the Lambs" for kids. Ted is Clarice, the Once-ler is Hannibal Lecter, and O'Hare is Jame Gumb. It's tempting call the Thneedville/O'Hare portions "bookends" or "framework" to the book's story, which is reduced to a glorified flashback that eats up the prolonged middle of the film, but that's not right. The flashback is wedged into the center of the film, and is meant to explain first and foremost what happened to all the authentic trees and pure nature, and perhaps secondly, to make some sort of point about cyclical human greed and rampant disregard for our planet. The previously unseen Once-ler (the regretful character who once upon a time indulged in nature-destroying greed in order to mass-produce Thneeds, a product no one needed) is now striped of his mystery (which always sent my imagination surging as kid) and is given a human face and the disingenuous voice of Ed Helms. In most any other film, the content detailed in the Once-ler's flashback would run five, maybe ten minutes tops. But since this adaptation exists only because of the iconic source material, it gets decompressed as the movie's newly fabricated macro story is put on hold. The Once-ler essentially says so much, repeatedly prodding the boy that if he wants the tree, he has to sit through this story. (Hey, I sat through it, too - do I get a tree?)
Where most children's films of the past few decades are compelled to preach about things like tolerance and environmentalism, "The Lorax" takes this notion a step further by deeply questioning the very way many people live their lives. (That is, pacified and blitzed out in a consumer culture, checked out from an increasingly artificial world.) It's bit of a bold move for a film like this to turn the mirror towards ourselves, revealing such an uncomfortable reality, even if it is only for isolated moments. What we end up with, perhaps amusingly, is practically a cinematic call to arms. As noble as this endeavor may be, it's utterly botched in the heavy-handed execution.
"Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" is colorful and bright, with 3D that's actually not a waste (even if director Chris Renaud's use of it isn't as clever as what he was doing in "Despicable Me"). Certainly the late Theodor Geisel would approve of that aspect. But the problems inherent in the bungled sensibility of "The Lorax" film are fundamentally unsettling, leading one to question the true motivations behind Seuss' estate's in licensing their patriarch's work all over Hollywood. George Clooney's relatives in "The Descendents" can't help but come to mind, especially as we consider this ham-fisted CG diatribe against greed. If that double standard isn't clear enough, the Lorax character can currently be seen hawking fuel-guzzling cars on commercials. We are all children of the age of corporate greed, but hopefully by looking at this film from all sides, we too can see the true moral from a mile away.
- Jim Tudor