Thursday, March 1, 2012

Review: "The Lorax"

More a civics lesson than a story, "The Lorax" is based on one of Dr. Seuss' lesser-known books -- and it's not surprising that the pint-sized yellow furball with a walrus mustache isn't nearly as iconic as the Grinch or the Cat in the Hat.

Voiced by Danny DeVito as the cantankerous protector of the forest, The Lorax doesn't go on any zany adventures or experience a turnaround of heart from his once-wicked ways. He doesn't even use his magic to zap the bad guys chopping down his beloved Truffula Trees. He's just an environmental steward who gets his way by lecturing people to do the right thing.

His heart may be in the right place, but this woodland sprite comes across as a shrill nag.

Lou Dobbs and some other right-wing bloviators have taken to preemptively criticizing this movie for its leftist, tree-hugging themes. Normally I'd dismiss this sort of self-righteous hot air for what it is, but "The Lorax" sure gives them an obvious target to aim at.

The story concerns the Once-ler, an inventive young man who uses the Truffula Trees, which resemble rainbow-colored swirls of cotton candy, to make his Thneed. The Thneed, an indistinct cloth-like object, is the quintessential cinematic red herring, since nobody (even the Once-ler) knows exactly what it does. But he's determined that everyone will want one.

At first content to harvest the feather-like leaves, the Once-ler soon decides the needs of the Thneeds outweigh those of the adorable forest creatures -- impossibly cute roly-poly teddy bears, singing fish and friendly ducks. He starts lopping down all the trees, until nothing but a barren wasteland is left.

One musical number is especially un-subtle, with the Once-ler (Ed Helms) singing about his property rights and growing the economy as his Thneed factory belches out horrid black goo and choking smog. He even has a framed newspaper story about himself, titled "Too Big to Fail!"

Occupy Whoville, anyone?

The movie isn't helped by the wobbly framing story set decades into the future, involving an inquisitive young lad named Ted (Zac Efron) who wants to find the last tree in the world so he can impress Audrey (Taylor Swift), the older teen he adores. He ventures beyond the confines of Thneedville to seek out the Once-ler, who has turned into a mythical loner chewing over his misdeeds.

The computer-generated animation is quite good -- too good, in fact, for the plasticized world of Thneedville, where no living thing grows and the evil industrialist Mr. O'Hare (Rob Riggle) makes a killing by selling fresh air to the people. It's a bright and shiny menagerie of twisted Seussian buildings and overinflated one-wheeled vehicles, that in some ways is more fun to spend time in than the Lorax's virgin pastures.

Director Chris Renaud and screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, the same team behind the likeable "Despicable Me" from a couple years back, make a questionable choice in adapting the book. Seuss was careful never to show the Once-ler, other than a pair of arms. By fully revealing him as an engaging young fellow who turns bad, it breaks the conceit of the fable and makes everything seem a little less magical.

"The Lorax" isn't bad as far as entertainment for wee tykes. It fails not because it has an environmental tilt, but because -- like the Once-ler -- the movie isn't content to merely plant a few seeds of thought, opting instead to mow down the audience with is message.

2 stars out of four


  1. I think you mean MacGuffin, not red herring.

    Also, this film was in production well before the Occupy movement became prominent.

  2. While the movie is funnier than the book, the drawback of this modernized version is that it loses the timeless quality of the story on the page. Still though, the visuals are beautiful and are a total delight for both the parents and kids. Good review.