The Lorax: Notes from a Seuss-icide

As you can imagine in this day and age of CGI singing Chipmunks and picnic-basket-stealing bears, there are myriad ways a big, mainstream, animated film could screw up a Dr. Seuss story, including paving over the good doctor’s gently clever whimsy with Shrek-y pop-culture shtick, lame jokes, and slapstick; stripping away (or worse, over-playing) the page’s psychedelic visual noodlings; and shoe-horning in painfully bad songs and dance scenes.

In the past 12 years—once studios figured out there was gold in them thar hills of Gen-X/Y parenting nostalgia—we’ve suffered through two live-action Seuss misfires (Ron Howard and Jim Carrey’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Mike Myers’ deeply odd The Cat in the Hat) and a much less offensive animated version of Horton Hears a Who (with the peaceful pachyderm voiced by Carrey).

But to be fair, this newest one, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, does not fall totally into those particular pitfalls. It’s penned by Horton’s screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul and produced by that film’s Christopher Meledandri, who also guided the Ice Age movies for Fox until he and others went off on their own and formed Illumination Entertainment. Illumination launched itself in 2010 with Despicable Me, whose director Chris Renaud is back helming The Lorax.

So the animation bona fides are all in place for this latest Seuss outing, and like those Meledandri films before it, on its surface The Lorax delivers solid family entertainment: broad, basic laughs; decent celebrity voice work by Zac Efron (the film’s young protagonist Ted), Danny DeVito (the Lorax), and Ed Helms (the not-so villainous Once-ler); and best of all, truly delightful, well-crafted songs from John Powell as performed by the musically inclined Mr. Helms.

That sort of broad liability, combined with the aforementioned Gen-X/Y Lorax/Seuss “brand awareness and nostalgia” and a full-court-press marketing campaign by Universal has already turned The Lorax into a massive box-office hit and as such, it’s draped in the robes of “success” and has earned a general “it’s good!” from audiences.

On its surface the film is no worse–and quite a bit better–than most kids films. And yet… underneath that mass-appeal enjoyability, The Lorax is a reeking abomination.

For starters, the film—as good-intentioned and well-crafted as it may be by Meledandri, Renaud & Co.—waters down the guts and soul of Seuss’ moving and thought-provoking book. In the film everything has to be shined and happied up to keep the broadest possible 2012 family audience blithely pleased and undisturbed, un-offended.

Efron’s young Ted (named for Seuss himself) does not live in a post-environmental-collapse industrial wasteland, but rather inside a plastic, processed amusement-land where everyone is satisfied and everything is pretty and artificial. (And of course he’s out to save the environment to impress a girl, named Audrey after Seuss’ wife and voiced by Taylor Swift.)

The scenery change in itself is not unwarranted—there’s greater potential subversion in that message, mirroring our tendency to wrap our lives in bright, pre-packaged illusion. Still you can’t escape the sense throughout the film that the alterations were done not to make a point, but to avoid “bumming viewers out.” (The edgiest thing left is Betty White voicing—wait for it!—a sassy, saucy older woman.)

Likewise, the decision to fully show in flashbacks the book’s bitter, broken protagonist The Once-ler as a young, eager and idealistic young man and have him voiced by Helms (the master of genially misguided naïfs) obviously humanizes the character and de-fangs his environmental destruction.

In fact, for much of the movie, we viewers identify with the Once-ler and get swept away by his “hero’s quest”: successfully selling his Truffala-tree-fleecing, Snuggie-like Thneeds. Again, that might provide a valid thematic hook about how even well-intentioned “good guys” end up doing great harm, except the film neatly lets the Once-ler off said hook. DeVito’s Lorax is a grumpy but grinning prankster, not a crusading hippie spirit of the wild, and he and the Once-ler are irascible pals in a joking love-hate buddy friendship.

The film’s Lorax doesn’t stridently preach or crusade, but rather joshes good-naturedly—after all, you wouldn’t want the face of all your merchandising to look like a “nut.” And unlike in the book, it’s the Once-ler who’s the victim of the Lorax’ pranks, rather than the Lorax who’s bedeviled and alarmed by the Once-ler’s relentlessness.

The chopping down of the Truffala trees is a plot device rather than a message, so when the bright flora is finally depleted and the Lorax sends the local fauna packing, picks himself up by his henie, and flies off there’s no mournful sense of tragedy—we’re sadder that our cheerful pal the Once-ler has lost his dreams of fortune and fame than we are that he’s single-handedly destroyed an ecosystem.

Worst of all, [SPOILER ALERT!] where Seuss’ text end, the film only hits its third act. The rest of the running time is the usual hyper-kinetic kiddie-movie chase scenes (on a motorized scooter, natch), a parade not of subtle whimsy or earnest satire but rather candy colored noise as Ted and Audrey race to plant the last Truffala seed. (The book’s message was the planet was in trouble “unless” we each took action–the film turns that into “you can save the day if you just outrun the bad guys and achieve this video-game quest.”) In the end the Lorax returns (of course) from what was a powerfully uncertain self-exile in the book, the Once-ler is redeemed (of course), and the future looks bright and happy once again. No gloom and doom here, folks!

All this weakens the original book’s message, but honestly that was to be expected when a big-studio, mainstream kids film took on Seuss’ somewhat harrowing environmental message. In fact, the reason the Lorax still has a grip on our pop-culture consciousness 40 years later is because it was such a startlingly stark and even strident children’s tale—the book is a dark, angry warning and as such made an impact on young minds. But this new Lorax had to be sold to everyone, including those potential theater-goers who, for various political, social, economic, or religious reasons (or varied afflictions of cynicism or rank stupidity), are dismissive if not hostile to literal (liberal?) tree-hugging.

And that’s what sickened me to my core–the inescapable sense that while the film preaches against greedy entrepreneurship, it itself exists as an ode to consumerism. The villains are those who sell—those citizens who cannot stop buying never factor into the anti-life equation. Because the Once-ler’s Thneeds are the multi-purpose product of Seuss’ fertile and fanciful imagination, they don’t register as “real,” resource-depleting products with any connection to the toys, gadgets, and products Ted and his neighbors have surrounded themselves with.

Normally you try to separate a final creative endeavor from its marketing, but that’s nearly impossible with The Lorax. Not only does film sport more than 70 product tie-ins (including, most frivolously a synergetic Lorax guest appearance on the singing competition The Voice–and most odiously, a Mazda commercial), but it itself feels like just another product to be marketed to the most number of consumers. And like any product these days, in order to sell itself it has to make people feel good, not bad. Forget the Once-ler’s Thneeds, the real selling is of the movie The Lorax, a super-slick empty entertainment that’s not out to capture young viewers’ hearts and consciences, but rather their parents’ pocketbooks.

Of course that’s true of most mainstream films and kids’ films more than the rest. But The Lorax’ blatant packaging and marketing is more galling than say that of the Chipmunks because of Seuss’ pedigree and name in the title. Seuss had something to say in the book The Lorax, and it wasn’t “buy more Lorax-related things.”

Turning that work and its urgent message into a toothless kids’ film is disagreeable, but making it into a product that so transparently exists only to be sold (and help sell other products) is like making a musical about the sins of dancing. Or if Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had tried to warn young people about diabetes. What’s next? An adaptation of The Butter Battle Book sponsored by Lockheed Martin and Halliburton?

1 Comment to The Lorax: Notes from a Seuss-icide

  1. May 3, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    You are definitely right about the irony of all the product tie-ins. However, I would disagree that the movie doesn’t make kids think about the environment. I thought the message worked rather well. After watching it in the theater with my kids, we went and got two trees and planted them in our front yard. That’s gotta count for something, right?

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

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