I didn’t read a lot of Dr. Seuss as a kid. Most of my time was spent reading Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic, children’s horror books like In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories (“And Jenny’s head fell off.” Fuuu…), or The Dinosuar Dictionary. Due to that gap in my popular culture education, I never even knew about The Lorax until Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures began marketing their CGI animated version of Dr. Seuss’ environmentalist fable last year.
I kind of wish it had never strayed into my circle of awareness.
If you don’t know the book either, it’s the story of a boy who lives in Thneedville. His town is a surreal wonder of Astroturf, asphalt, and plastic, and its people need to buy air because smog has poisoned the environment.
At least we’re told that much in the opening song.
The fact is that Thneedville looks pretty damned good. It’s clean and neat and colorful. The roads are paved, the air looks clear, and everyone seems to have a house and food on the table (extremely cool looking mini Jello treats in neon colors!) Sure, there’s a kid who glows after swimming in their ostensibly polluted water, but the little bastard looks so happy singing along to the music that I can’t see how a kid is supposed to get the message that unchecked urbanization is bad. If you were to ask three years old me what I thought about Thneedville, I’d have told you I would love to live there.
The movie is painfully preachy like that. The enthusiastically zealous, Catholic bishop kind of preachy. It doesn’t even try to hide it. The message probably works in the book; the book was meant for three year olds. If the glaringly obvious pop culture references are any indication, this film was not. Unlike Fox’s Horton Hears a Who, which presented characters and let the lesson flow from the story, this story feels like it’s purpose is the message itself. That means it’s inherently more serious. Unfortunately, like the opening number, the movie is far too silly and the conflict that creates between the onscreen antics and the message feels jarring.
It's a lot like Despicable Me, which I liked a lot. The minions are among my favorite things ever to appear on screen. The Lorax seems to borrow a lot from the formula used in Despicable Me but it doesn't work because the characters just aren't the same. The constant nods to pop culture here feel forced and anachronistic to Seuss' aesthetic. There's a part where the fishes in the stream start warbling the Mission Impossible theme and it totally ripped me out of the movie.
But let me finish the summary. So after the opening number the boy, Ted, stops by his neighbor Audrey’s house. Ted’s got a crush on Audrey (if this had been an R-rated, teener film, this is where they’d have gotten a shot of the boner in his shorts growing) and makes up any excuse to visit her. Audrey takes him around back (again, if this were a teener film, this is where we’d be expecting female frontal nudity) and shows him a mural she’s made on their wall showing a tree.
She goes on to explain how there used to be millions of these trees and how she wants to see one more than anything in the world. Ted, being a teener with a boner who is always looking for female frontal nudity, sets off on a quest to bring Audrey back a tree.
Seuss’ Truffala “trees” look like really thin troll dolls. Instead of leaves, they have soft, fluffy hair. As the story progresses, you find out that the ambiguously sinister “Once-ler” who Ted sets out to find (because according to Betty White, Ted’s grandma, he knows what happened to the “trees”) was actually the one who destroyed the environment after harvesting the trees to make “thneeds” (which is Seuss-ese for “scarf”).
Whoops, spoilers! Come on. Like you didn’t see that coming?
I wanted to like this film. It's got a lot going for it: the Seuss name, the bright and colorful characters, Danny DeVito, Taylor Swift, and Betty White's voices, and some damnably cute critters in supporting roles. However, the insistence on shoving in the "grown-up" jokes and one-offs really kills it for me.
If you want to see something with an environmentalist message, go buy a copy of Wall-E, which was a far superior film and story. If you want Seuss, find Horton Hears a Who. It's a good deal more fun.