Dr. Seuss wasn’t afraid to provide serious messages in his books. Not everything he wrote was Green Eggs and Ham (which, in all fairness, stresses the importance of trying new things). Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is a moving story that could be read to anyone at any age and still be meaningful. The Lorax didn’t have the joy and humor of his other books but instead left its readers with a poignant message and dire warning. Illumination Entertainment’s big 3D CGI-animated adaptation could care less about either. The Lorax gives a begrudging nod towards environmentalism, a halfhearted tip of the hat to Dr. Seuss, and then pours all of its energy into being hip and funny but succeeded at neither.
Ted (voiced by Zac Efron) is out to win the heart of his pretty neighbor Audrey (Taylor Swift), who wants to see a real tree rather than the mechanical ones that overrun their metal world of Thneedville. Ted’s cool granny (Betty White) tells him to go outside the town and speak with the Once-ler (Ed Helms) and learn about what happened to the trees. The Once-ler retells his story involving the ineffective defender of the forest, the Lorax (Danny DeVito), but forces Ted to keep coming back to hear the whole tale. Ted’s secret excursions out of town puts him under the eye of the Thneedville’s corporate-evil-guy-in-chief Mr. O’Hare (Rob Riggle), who doesn’t want the trees to come back because they would ruin his business, which is selling bottled air.
Dr. Seuss’ book had a simple premise: a young boy visits the Once-ler and the Once-ler tells the tale of how his greed and ambition chopped down the forest, and how he should have listened to The Lorax, who “spoke for the trees.” That’s not enough for a movie (it was barely enough for the 1972 television special), and so a feature-length film needs some padding. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that approach. Giving the young boy a name and a motivation is a good place to start (even though Audrey is treated more like a goal rather than a person). Having a new corporate greed villain is a bit heavy-handed, but it makes the story more immediate to Ted and provides some stakes in getting the trees back.
But these concessions aren’t thoughtful ways of expanding the story. They, like everything else in the movie, they’re done more to shield a message rather than deliver it. It’s one thing to show the Once-ler with a face and a back-story showing the youthful enthusiasm of someone who wants to make his fortune. But the movie is scared to make him even slightly unlikable. He’s simply “misguided” and even at his lowest, he’s someone who has let success go to his head rather than let it corrode his soul. When he’s boarded up in his home, he’s still a funny guy who likes marshmallows and has fun contraptions to keep people away. He’s a codger, not a humbled voice of sage wisdom.
Likewise, the humor becomes an end unto itself rather than a way to stress the moral of the story. Obviously, you can’t scold kids for 90 minutes about the importance of trees. The Lorax finds a good way to get in some entertainment value by showing the Once-ler’s relationship to the woodland creatures (although the movie doesn’t bother to give them Dr. Seuss’ names: “Swanyswans”, “Barbalutes”, and “Hummingfish”). Even making the Lorax a bit of a wise-ass isn’t the worst compromise in the world. Sadly, these are the only jokes that really work. Everything that takes place in Thneedville (with the exception of mechanical spy cats) is more impressive because of its design rather than its humor.
A spoonful of sugar will help the medicine go down, but the filmmakers can’t stand the thought of giving the audience anything but sugar. When the Once-ler cuts down his first tree and summons the Lorax, the Lorax begins building a small grave around the tree’s stump. The woodland creatures help him carry rocks to form the circle around the stump, but for no reason, the film throws in a joke where one of the woodland creatures is carrying a stone that’s too big. The Lorax can’t take twenty seconds to trust its audience to feel something that might stick with them after they leave the theater.
Screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul think that Dr. Seuss needs to be “relevant” so they thrust an electric guitar into the young Once-ler’s hands and give Ted a cool motorbike. There’s no understanding about the playfulness of Seuss’ language or the wonder of his worlds. Directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda don’t understand The Lorax either; they understand generic, forgettable animated family films. To them and their animators, paying tribute to Dr. Seuss means making sure there’s no such thing as a straight line. The design of the nature-less Thneedville is clever, but there’s a shocking dearth of imagination in the character designs. O’Hare looks like a leftover from Despicable Me, and Audrey and two unrelated attractive women look almost exactly the same.
Just as it doesn’t understand what it’s doing with Dr. Seuss’ book, The Lorax doesn’t understand its own format. The movie is in 3D because that’s what studios mandate for their CGI animated films. It’s a boneheaded choice because Seuss didn’t make pop-up books. He made colorful worlds and the art direction gets that right except 3D dims all the colors. Take off your glasses and you’ll see a bright and colorful double-image. The Lorax also features songs even though they’re not any good and add absolutely nothing the movie. They’re dropped into the film because, like everything else in The Lorax, no one considered if the addition actually made the movie better.
Dr. Seuss was a businessman. Theodor Seuss Geisel created a brand and made lots of money doing it. There’s nothing wrong with that. What he created was one-of-a-kind and there will never be another Dr. Seuss. By contrast, The Lorax is an empty product that you’ll forget the moment you leave the theater. When the book builds to the final page and puts up the message:
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
That message stays with you. It’s written in the same meter and verse of the entire book. By contrast, the phrase sticks out like a sore thumb in the movie because the filmmakers spent more time designing truffula trees than at least attempting to write in Seuss’ style and rhythm. But more importantly, when the “Unless” line is spoken in the movie, it has no weight. It has as much impact as “Give a hoot. Don’t Pollute.” The Lorax speaks for the trees, but The Lorax is nothing but lip service.