Adapting Dr. Seuss for a feature film is a challenge. The movies can capture his whimsical drawings and mischievous humor but they fail when they pad his storylines and jettison his rhymes. Dr. Seuss had a genius for saying a lot with a little, which is one reason the half-hour animated television versions of his stories hold up so well. But more is less when it comes to adapting Dr. Seuss, and in this latest, as in too many before, most of what is added is unnecessary, distracting, and nowhere near the quality of the original.
The Lorax applies all of the latest tools of technology with great skill and imagination and never match the standard of Dr. Seuess’ paintbrush on paper. It is beautifully designed and makes great use of 3D. Unfortunately, it weighs down the story of the book, becoming something Dr. Seuss never was — heavyhanded.
The legendary Dr. Seuss wrote the story of The Lorax as a cautionary tale about environmental pollution and corporate greed in an era when the country was newly awakened to the dangers confronting our fragile ecological system. In the age of hippies and “flower power” and yearning for a return to nature, The Lorax fit right in.
In this expanded version of the story, twelve year old Ted (Zac Efron) has grown up in the town of Thneeville, where everything is “plastic and fake.” There is not one living tree, or even any place to plant a tree because the dirt has been covered up with plastic. The richest man in town, Mr. O’Hare, (Bob Riggle) makes his money selling bottled clean air (aided by large ruthless bodyguards and a corporate propaganda campaign). Mr. O’Hare believes that trees are a threat to his corporate profits because “trees make air for free.”
Ted daydreams of the beautiful young Audrey (Taylor Swift), and when Audrey wishes on her birthday that she could see “a real tree” rather than the plastic replicas in Thneeville, Ted sets out on a quest which gets him into all kinds of trouble and leads him on all kinds of adventures. (“If a boy does the same stupid thing twice, it’s usually for a girl.”) His exploits in the sewer system of Thneeville and outside the city limits are beautifully done. Ted’s quest takes him to an ancient hermit, the Once-ler, (Ed Helms) who tells the story of his long ago encounter with a strange woodland creature, the Lorax (Danny DeVito) who “spoke for the trees.” In a series of flashbacks the Once-ler explains how the trees were all killed off. The rest of the movie involves Ted, Audrey and Ted’s grandma battling corporate spies, security cameras and a brainwashed mob to see if trees can be restored. In a scene reminiscent of the recent animated classic “Wall-E,” there are wild chase scenes for the one last remaining seedling.
The Lorax is at its best when the animators are able to escape from the more heavy-handed aspects of the plot. Three singing, break-dancing goldfish provide a delightful background chorus to the action. The underground sewer system of Thneeville is a marvel of cartoon engineering. And there are some nice moments with Ted’s family, which seem to be inspired by the family in Carol Burnett’s old “Mama” skits from her variety TV show.
There is plenty of room for more animated parables sensitizing today’s young audiences to the importance of ecological concerns. However, Dr. Seus’ The Lorax would have been a better, more artful movie if its makers had exercised some artistic control and moderation over Dr. Seus’ manifesto from the opening salvos of the environmental wars. The book itself emphasizes sustainability so that natural resources will be around for production of goods. The film over-complicates the plot but over-simplifies the message.
Parents should know that this movie includes mild peril and themes of environmental destruction. Small children may find some of the exciting chases or the scenes of pollution a little intense.
Family discussion: Why did the Once-ler break his promise to the Lorax? Why did the citizens of Thneeville dislike trees? Would you be brave enough to do what Ted did?
If you like this, try: “Wall-E” and “Robots,” the Dr. Seuss book and the earlier and superior animated version with Eddie Albert as the narrator.