Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel's 1971 children’s book The Lorax is one of the famed author's only overtly political works. It is, in no unguarded terms, about the easy squandering of natural resources in favor of money and fame. The title character, a little orange furry gnome, serves as the conscience for a faceless character called The Once-Ler, who would chop down and consume every last tree in the valley to make a new miracle product he calls a thneed. The Once-Ler destroys the valley, and, as fashions change, becomes a hopeless pariah, sitting alone in the wasteland he created. The book is told in flashback to a young boy who is enlisted to plant the world's last remaining tree seed. The book is most certainly polemical, very powerful, and, like much of Seuss's work, well known and well-loved by generations of children.
Now the people who made the minor hit Despicable Me have made a 94-minute animated feature film of the 45 pages of The Lorax, and, as you'd suspect, the film feels like three minutes of actual substance with an entire feature's worth of shrill filler. What was once a simple moral tale now has several chase scenes, some romantic intrigue, and even numerous musical numbers, all flavored in that particularly mechanical-sounding and Autotuned brand of Disney pop. What we essentially have is a nicely obnoxious feature that feels less like a legitimate literary adaptation, or a brief story with a moral, and more like a careful marketing ploy on the part of greedy film producers, cynically cashing in on yet another well-known property.
The film version starts in a bright and clean walled-off future dystopia of Thneedville, where the inhabitants enjoy fresh air from cans, and fear anything that is not artificial; all the trees are inflatable, all the snow is plastic, and everything is overseen by a squat Moe Howard-looking entrepreneur named Mr. O'Hare (Rob Riggle) who has cameras everywhere. Living in Thneedville is Ted (Zac Efron™), a personality-free 12-year-old boy with the hots for Audrey (mascara-addict and country pop tart Taylor Swift), the pretty redhead down the block. Audrey is a spooky nature chick who longs to see a real-life tree, causing Ted to venture beyond the city walls to the wasteland beyond in search of the Once-Ler (Ed Helms), the one man who may have information on these mysterious trees.
The film then vacillates between Ted's story to overpower the oppressive Big Brother regime within the city, and flashbacks to the early days of The Once-Ler's life, wherein he first rose to power with his thneeds, and where he, while chopping down trees, first met The Lorax (Danny DeVito), and when he bribed the local fauna with marshmallows. There is one acceptable musical number in the film, depicting how The Once-Ler went from a man concerned with honoring his promise to protect the environment to being a social Darwinist, convinced he is doing good by the world if he is doing good by himself.
It's surprising how little of the film actually features the title character. The Lorax himself is painted as sort of a messianic figure. He whines to The Once-Ler that he is ruining the environment. The Once-Ler asks him to use his magical powers to stop him, if he's so powerful. The Lorax simply replies; “That's not the way it works, kid.” You, sir, have to choose to do the right thing. At least the film's moral is sound.
The bulk of the film, is, sadly, devoted to useless set pieces and cutesy comic asides. The bulk of The Lorax sequences take place in a forest, and a lot of time and comic energy is devoted to the teddy bears and land-bound fish that live in the glade. Their word-free squeaking, adorable snuffling, and huge disarming eyeballs aren't as charming or as funny as, I suspect, the filmmakers thought they were. By contrast, the Ted sequences are all expertly choreographed and utterly tiresome high-speed chase scenes that are very clearly wedged into the film to pad it out to feature length. When you see Betty White's grandma character taking charge of an enormous two-wheeled construction shovel, pounding holes through the concrete grass of Thneedville, shrieking that time is running out, you'll wonder where the message is, and, indeed, where The Lorax went.
This is the first film I've seen in a while with animation this bad. Sure, the animators have nailed the usual hair and skin textures, but the movements have some of the usual CGI jerkiness that infects the form, and, get this, the lip-synch is off. For a few scenes, it really looked like the actors dubbed their voices after animation was completed. Did anyone else notice this?
Dr. Seuss' The Lorax is going to be released in 3-D (natch), which will, as per usual, dazzle little kids and give grown-ups headaches. I suspect many parents will take their kids to see The Lorax to give them a positive environmentalist message. They'll get it; the message is about as subtle as Captain Planet and the Planeteers. I feel sorry for the parents, though, who will be forced to sit through yet another CGI mess for the kiddies.