Just in time for what would have been Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel’s 108th birthday, the creators of Despicable Me adapt the favorite tale of the beloved children’s author for the big screen, rendering his whimsical 2-D illustrations in shiny, computer-generated 3-D. The moral of the story, published more than 40 years ago, couldn’t be more topical: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot [about trees specifically or the environment generally], nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Unfortunately, in their bid to expand the good doctor’s rhymes to feature length, the filmmakers bookend the fable about the Lorax with a new storyline that distracts and detracts from the core message of the original book.
The boy featured at the start and end of The Lorax now has a name: Ted, presumably in homage to his creator. Ted (voiced by Zac Efron) is smitten with Audrey, named after Geisel’s wife, whose greatest wish in life is to see a real, live tree. You see, Ted and Audrey (Taylor Swift) live in Thneed-Ville, an entirely plastic city with inflatable bushes, mechanical flowers and battery-operated trees sealed off from the outside world. As described in the film’s opening anthem, though, the people of Thneedville, all smooth surfaces and no sharp edges, are happy with the way things are, especially since O’Hare Air bottles and delivers fresh, clean O2 right to your door.
On advice from his whip-smart, totally underestimated Grammy Norma (Betty White), Ted ventures outside Thneed-Ville to track down the Once-ler (Ed Helms) to learn where he can find a tree for Audrey. What he discovers is a dark, depressing wasteland dotted by dead tree trunks, rotting equipment and factory ruins. The Once-ler hides in a booby-trapped lair, ashamed and guilt-ridden about causing the devastation that surrounds him. He agrees to help Ted, but Ted has to listen to what happened to all the trees first.
Finally, we pick up with the source material, a cautionary tale about how the Once-ler’s greed and ambition to make and sell multipurpose Thneeds led to the destruction of the valley’s fanciful trees, which look like cotton candy lollipops, and the exile of its aggressively cute creatures: the Swomee-Swans, the teddy-bear Bar-ba-loots and the actually quite lovely crooning Humming-Fish. (Three species were plenty to fill the pages of Dr. Seuss’ book, but here the wildlife feels rather limited.) The magical guardian of the forest, the curmudgeonly yet cuddly Lorax (Danny DeVito), tried to intervene, but the Once-ler’s opportunism, expressed in a catchy, yet sharply critical capitalist ditty, grew nightmarish.
These flashbacks are interrupted by the present-day story: The Once-ler won’t tell Ted his tale all at once, so Ted has to go home and come back the next day. In the meantime, his foray outside the city limits has attracted the attention of Aloysius O’Hare (Rob Riggle), a squat executive with a Napoleon complex and a ridiculous bowl cut whose bottled-air business depends on a dearth of trees. As a result, viewers are no longer invested in the Lorax himself so much as they’re waiting, perhaps impatiently, to see what he has to do with Ted and Audrey.
In many ways, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax is a stunning visual achievement. Hair and fur have always proved a tremendous challenge for CGI artists, but here the Lorax’s feathery mustache, the critters’ fuzzy fur, and the trees’ wispy tufts have been so finely crafted that one can practically feel how soft they are to the touch. In addition, director Chris Renaud and his team use 3-D judiciously; it’s especially effective—because it’s not overused—in a couple of theme park ride-like sequences.
Unfortunately, though, there’s something tedious about this film, partly because the Lorax himself is sort of sidelined for Ted and Audrey’s story, partly due to a pointed environmental message that ultimately overrides all the characters with an Up with People-esque soundtrack. To its detriment, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax wears its heart on its sleeve.
Director: Chris Renaud
Writers: Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio
Voices: Danny DeVito, Ed Helms, Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, Rob Riggle, Jenny Slate, Betty White
Release Date: Mar. 2, 2012