Dr. Seuss is best known for his popular line of children's books that include colorful characters, rhymes and playful banter. Oftentimes, they allude to heavy sociopolitical topics like anti-consumerism, racial equality and environmentalism. The latter of which is captured in his latest book to hit the big screen, The Lorax. In the film, a young boy ventures outside the polluted environs of his hometown to find the last living tree. Along the way, he encounters a small orange creature known as the Lorax, who serves as guardian of the forest. Brought to screen by the same group responsible for Despicable Me, The Lorax is cotton candy on the eyes. With recognizable voiceovers, musical numbers, sight gags and a bevy of chase scenes, both young and old audiences will find plenty of superficial delights—and one important message about the environment’s plight.
Thneedville is a polluted town. So polluted and grim, trees and flowers no longer grow. “Welcome to Thneedville. A city they say that was plastic and fake. And they liked it that way!” And therein lives Ted (Zac Efron), a young boy vying for the affection of a young girl. To impress Audrey (Taylor Swift), the girl next door, Ted leaves the confines of Thneedville to locate a real tree, the legendary Truffula, and retrieve some of its flora. Along the way, he encounters a strange recluse known as the Once-ler (Ed Helms), who carefully hides from plain view, except for his long green arms. Curiously, Ted asks the Once-ler how the world came to be in such a bad way. And the Once-ler explains.
The world was once a beautiful, cheerful place filled with forests upon forests of Truffula trees. Until an ambitious businessman (the Once-ler) began to chop them down for profit. With business booming, the Once-ler received a visit by a small, orange creature. “I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees,” he says. Protector of the forest, the Lorax (Danny DeVito) urges the Once-ler to stop cutting down so many trees. Continuing to do so, he warns, will cause irreparable harm to the environment.
But the Once-ler ignores the warnings and continues his greedy ways until the Truffula trees are no more and the land is left in ruin. At the end of the story, the now bankrupt Once-ler presents Ted with the last Truffula seed in the hopes that he may slowly restore the environment to its former self. But little does Ted know that there are still others with Once-ler-like intentions to make a profit for themselves.
Long before the many children’s books, Theodore Seuss Geisel was a political cartoonist and illustrator of advertising campaigns for companies like Standard Oil and Flit. He often depicted his opposition to fascism, communism and discrimination in a variety of cartoons throughout the World War II era. Even though he made a special point not to create stories with morals, his children’s books became an extension of his political cartoons and views, emphasizing a variety of pressing issues. So it’s not surprising, then, that the message of The Lorax is front and center in the film adaptation. But what is surprising is the bitter irony in which it is delivered—a simple tale turned into excess. This 45-page children’s book turned into an hour and a half feature film, all fluffed up with a marshmallow coating and bubble gum center. Overused gimmicks such as an undersized villain with despicable minions, a series of 3D enhanced car chases and far too many underwhelming musical numbers with singing fish and cuddly bears. Even the film’s marketing campaign offers a lesson in excess, contradicting the primary purpose of the story (conservationism), with questionable tie-ins to Target, IHOP, HP, Mazda, Xfinity, Pottery Barn and Double Tree, just to name a few.
Marketing aside, there are still plenty of positive takeaways. For starters, the animation is dazzling and aesthetically pleasing, wonderfully capturing the vibrant world of Dr. Seuss, from the artificiality of Thneedville to the woodland wonders of life before the wasteland. The 3D adds even more depth and dimension to characters and their environments. The humor is simple at times (like a “furry orange peanut”) and sophisticated at others, with more adult references to The Dukes of Hazzard and Donkey Kong. The voiceover work by Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, Ed Helms and Betty White is both memorable and pleasing. Most specifically, the grumpy, mustachioed Lorax, is brought to life perfectly by Danny DeVito.
Representing the fourth feature film based on a book by Dr. Seuss, The Lorax falls somewhere in the middle—no better than Horton Hears a Who!, and no worse than The Cat in the Hat. Chris Renaud and team brought a youthful exuberance and charm to the screen. But viewers may be a bit befuddled, as Dr. Seuss’ simple, bold message about environmental care gets lost in a sea of Truffula chip pancakes. It's enough to leave all the Whos in Whoville wondering, "Who sold out who?"
Mark Sells is a nationally recognized film and entertainment journalist for The Reel Deal. In addition to RELEVANT, he has contributed to The Oregon Herald, MovieMaker Magazine, Moving Pictures, 303 and Film International, and can be heard weekly on 100.3 FM The Sound (Los Angeles), providing the latest in movie news and reviews. Check out The Reel Deal on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.