Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax
Directed by Chris Renaud, Kyle Balda
Screenplay by Ken Daurio
Danny DeVito, Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, Ed Helms, Rob Riggle, Betty White, Jenny Slate
How long is Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax? 86 minutes.
What is Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax rated? PG for brief mild language.
Seuss Strictly By Association
I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I’ll never see a tree at all.
— Ogden Nash —
This weekend, a whole new generation of doe-eyed tykes will meet The Lorax a furry blob of a woodland nymph conceived in 1971 by children’s author Dr. Seuss to “speak for the trees,” specifically to the faceless, soulless ogre of industrial development.
The works of Dr. Seuss have had a checkered but mostly respectable history of adaptation to the screen. Beginning in the 1960s, legendary animator Chuck Jones, along with Looney Tunes producer Friz Freleng and his Pink Panther cohort David H. DePatie, began a series of beloved television specials bringing the good doctor’s creations to life. How The Grinch Stole Christmas reigns over all of them in terms of perennial popularity, but there were many others including Horton Hears A Who and The Cat In The Hat. Seuss (also known as Theodor Geisel) put in a lot of personal effort to keep these projects true to the spirit of his children’s books. At very least, he generally wrote or co-wrote the television specials.
Near the end of his life, he gave a particularly strong nod of approval to maverick animator Ralph Bakshi for his adaptation of the doomsday fable “The Butter Battle Book.” Then came the death of Dr. Seuss and a rather dark aftermath once people began drastically reimagining his work for themselves.
In 2000, Ron Howard and Jim Carrey took a run at The Grinch, which was a commercial success but a critical flop, and should have proved that Dr. Seuss should never be staged by live actors. Then, in cruel defiance, Mike Myers perpetrated his insulting, disgusting vision of The Cat In The Hat, which received neither praise nor money of any significant kind. The final notable entry in the record is Horton Hears A Who, which enjoyed reasonable success in both categories, thanks to the thoughtful effort of Jimmy Hayward, an animator for the likes of Toy Story, Finding Nemo and other favorites.
However, the fact that Hayward went on to direct the regrettable Jonah Hex, along with the films just named and the one about to be described, seems to prove that a successful Seuss project without the personal participation of the late Seuss himself, is basically a fluke and a pipe dream.
To begin with, Dr. Seuss should not be animated by computers in 3-D. It just needs to be painted or drawn, and if not it should at least be presented with the illusion thereof. The smooth contours of the prevailing animation style sap so much from the jagged, surreal landscapes of Seuss’s imagination that it would barely be recognizable if not for the distinctive scruff of the Truffula trees. In addition, the script’s occasional throwaway quotes from the original rhyming narrative do nothing to cover the script’s complete lack of wit and heart. Either write the script at least ninety percent in Seuss verse — for crying out loud, it’s already written for you! — or just forget it. Or if you must write your own brilliant re-tread of the most unique children’s author ever to live, you’d better make sure it’s damned funny and dashed clever.
Unpacking the short book for a ninety-minute format (when has that ever not worked, right?), the movie introduces us to the people of Thneedville, who live in a completely plastic town based on the long-ago invention of a catch-all product called the Thneed. Nobody is really aware of this, because the main function of the Thneed was to build their econonomy, wipe out every tree in the surrounding landscape, and fade away into forgotten history as the latest generation lives on in their blissful, ignorant utopia. How this connects to the core story which we soon see unfold might be interesting to see, but guess what? We will not see it.
Those of you in the know will be thinking about turning back five minutes in, as the story shows no promise until about fifteen minutes in, when we learn of the mysterious entrepreneur called the Once-Ler, who built a towering business at the expense of the virgin forest. In the process, he unleased an irascible critter called the Lorax (Danny DeVito), whose job it is to speak for the trees against those who would exploit and destroy them. This led to a series of amusing slapstick skirmishes between free enterprise and nature’s glory, and in fact the movie’s middle half hour is rather fun.
In other words, the parts that work best are those paying reasonable attention to the source material. From the moment that the Once-Ler begins to tell his tale about venturing into the forest, through the rise and fall of his industrial concern — the mythical Thneed — everything more or less works, and the lack of clever rhyming is somewhat forgivable. However, there’s a load of fatty framing narrative as well, in which a kid named Ted (Zac Efron) goes questing for a seemingly extinct tree to win the girl of his dreams, Audrey (Taylor Swift). Fortunately, his spunky grandmother (Betty White) remembers something about trees, and sends him beyond the artifice of Thneedville into the pitiful remains of the real world. Subtle enough for you?
If not, stir in the newly invented villain, O’Hare (Rob Riggle), who bottles fresh air for sale to the people of Thneedville and would be unseated by the resurgence of trees. Fine, but you’ve got to present that elegantly, not the way it has been done here. When adapting a classic story to a longer format than it can handle, fabricating a new antagonist to wedge into the narrative is usually a fatal mistake.
Back to Betty White, however. The best shorthand description of the movie is that it features that most worn-out of family comedy stock characters, the “super awesome grandma.” She spends much of her time on screen riding sidecar in high-speed escapes, and even crosses the line of jumping on a snowboard. This is one of the most irritating clichés in existence, second only to when the grandma raps. It is certainly worse than an ill-fitting villain forced into an already well-known and self-sufficient story. Sadly, this eggshell-thin form of comedy hits the same notes when Betty White’s character is not around. The “super awesome grandma” film has a certain look and feel to it throughout. The 2010 family hit Despicable Me was this kind of of movie too, but it stopped just short of snowboarding elderly, and managed to get away with a lot more as a result.
The Lorax was definitely one of Dr. Seuss’s most heavy-handed sermons, and this proves that only his whimsical touch could have made it an enduring favorite. The rather obvious underlying fable is convincingly poignant in both the original book, and the faithfully adapted 1972 Freleng-DePatie TV special, but here it seems like generalized eco-drivel which treats neither the material nor the moral with an appropriate amount of respect. Furthermore, making The Lorax a can’t-miss advertising logo aimed at the young and impressionable seems a little bit hyprocritical, no?
This is essentially the same writing and directing team that brought us Despicable Me in 2010, and there are traces of the same pace and joke structure throughout. Unfortunately, it is considerably less fresh the second time. Whenever there is a weak line or plot point, the writers dodge it with some adorable creature giggling or chattering in gibberish. The woodland animals — Barbaloots, Swami Swans and Hummingfish, faithfully reproduced from classic Seuss — fill the role of Despicable Me‘s army of tiny corn-kernel minions. They’re just about as charming, but their antics grow more and more predictable as the story wheezes on.
The biggest strength of The Lorax is its musical numbers, which get increasingly better after a dud of an opening sequence. The music hits a decidedly different pitch than the funky flavors of the ’70s TV Lorax, but probably sounds better to kids here and now. The midplot crisis “How Bad Can I Be?” and the finale “Let It Grow” are especially enjoyable. But why didn’t Danny DeVito’s Lorax get a song if the movie is supposed to be about him?
It’s neither a Borax nor a Snorax, and not necessarily paid for by Al Gorax — see all the quips I saved up just in case? — but neither is it substantial or edifying, which it certainly should be. The author might have something to say about that, were he still alive. A better title for this film would be Better Than Ferngully. Or go ahead and call it The Lorax, but Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax? Definitely not.