Mark Reviews Movies

The Lorax


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Chris Renaud

Cast: The voices of Zac Effron, Ed Helms, Danny DeVito, Taylor Swift, Betty White, Rob Riggle, Jenny Slate

MPAA Rating: PG (for brief mild language)

Running Time: 1:34

Release Date: 3/2/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 1, 2012

The reason the works of Dr. Seuss were, are, and will continue to be read—as long as there are human beings to tell bedtime stories to their children—is their simplicity. In them, the wonderful rhymes, the imaginative illustrations, and the creative pseudowords are the means to a message that might only be partially voiced but manage to be fully understood. Here's The Lorax, an adaptation of Seuss' proposal for a wise and forward-thinking treatment of the environment in the face of industrial excess, which insists we need song and dance numbers, a diminutive villain with grand schemes, and a collection of cute and cuddly denizens of the forest participating in broad physical comedy to understand a message that Seuss contends in 45 pages of pictures with a few sentences.

The boy hero of the book doesn't have a face, let alone a back story about trying to win the affections of an older girl who likes to paint murals and really wants to own a tree. There is no cliffhanger involving the budding industrialist and one of the fuzzy teddy bears on a roller coaster ride through raging rapids leading to a waterfall. There's certainly not a climactic chase sequences through the city of Thneedville as the heroes attempt to plant a literal and figurative seed in the center of town as the dastardly villain and his goons don jetpacks.

It's not a problem of a lack of faithfulness to the material; the computer animation is as bright and colorful (except, naturally, when things go south for the forest and, of course, if one sees it in 3-D) as the Seuss book and hits every necessary point of the story. The problem is very similar to the one faced by the man at the center of the flashbacks, who figures cutting down one tree here and there won't make much of a difference until he realizes there are no more trees left. Adding one subplot here and one extraneous character there might be fine and good, but eventually they start to overtake the core of the story.

Thneedville is a thriving metropolis where everything, from the inflatable bushes to the fake plastic trees with multiple light settings (autumn, winter, summer, and disco—yes, we're in that joke terrain), is artificial. Things have gotten so bad in the city limits that air is bottled and jugged like water, and you don't want to see what the water looks like as it makes its way past the city walls and into the rivers and streams outside. The citizens like to dance and sing without a trace of irony about how great their lives are.

Ted (voice of Zac Efron) lives in Thneedville with his mom (voice of Jenny Slate) and his grandmother (voice of Betty White). He has a crush on Audrey (voice of Taylor Swift), who paints trees on the back exterior of her house. She really wants to see a real tree just once, and Ted really, really wants to be the one to give her that gift. His grandma informs him of a strange hermit who lives in the ruins of the old Truffula forest beyond the walls of the city.

He is the Once-ler (voice of Ed Helms) who indeed knows about the Truffula trees that once thrived where his cottage currently sits. In flashbacks, the Once-ler reveals his tale: how he was laughed at by his family, how he wanted to prove himself with a multi-use invention called a Thneed, how he moved to the forest, and how the chopping down of one tree brought forth the grumpy and wistful Lorax (voice of Danny DeVito), a guardian of trees who speaks for them.

After some words of environmental wisdom from the Lorax and more tomfoolery and cuteness from the other creatures, the Once-ler and the Lorax broker a deal: The manufacturer is free to use the materials of the forest as long as he's responsible. Things go downhill when the demand for Thneeds grows beyond his ability to supply them.

The Lorax is the heart of the story (As evidence, I present the title of the book), but he begins to play fourth or fifth fiddle to everything happening around him. His sage advice is overshadowed by almost everything else in Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul's screenplay, as Ted's own dreams of winning over Audrey, the schemes of the clean-air supplier Mr. O'Hare (voice of Rob Riggle) and his network of cameras and henchmen work to sabotage Ted's attempts to hear the rest of the Once-ler's story, and the ancillary characters (e.g., the forest animals and the Once-ler's relatives) go through their hijinks.

Then there's the message itself, which Seuss knew was more about planting a seed than beating over the head. The Lorax takes the latter route with the likes of a grand musical number that documents the Once-ler's growth in business and decline in compassion. It's a fine combination of clever lyrics and representative imagery, but it begs us to ask: How many kids are going to take away Seuss' actual message from a song that breaks down the logical holes of supply-side economics?

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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