For those unfamiliar with The Lorax, the 1971 children’s book on which the new film Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax is based:
It’s an environmentalist parable told by a mysterious character called The Once-ler. Once an industrialist, The Once-ler is now a recluse living in a wasteland of his own making. He and his family chopped down the entire forest of truffula trees, the tufts of which he used to make “thneeds,” a multi-use consumer product vaguely like a Snuggie.
Throughout the story, the Once-ler repeatedly ignores the warnings of The Lorax, a gnomic forest being who looks like a mustachioed orange throw-pillow and irritably advocates on behalf of the trees and the ecosystems they support, which include such cuties as Brown Bar-ba-loots and Swomee Swans.
In the new, computer-animated film, he’s voiced by Danny DeVito, while Ed Helms speaks for the Once-ler.
Dr. Seuss, aka Ted Geisel, might be my pick for the finest narrative poet of the 20th Century, at least in English. His power comes not only from his exuberant, often nonsensical rhymes, but also from his rhythms—the lift and sweep and beauty of his cadences, and the thrilling declarative punch they give to his assertions:
“‘Mister,’ he said with a sawdusty sneeze/‘I am The Lorax. I speak for the trees/I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues/And I’m asking you sir, at the top of my lungs…’”
Dr. Seuss was wise to make The Lorax a cantankerous, curmudgeonly sort; he knew that railing against consumerism is typically a loser’s game, and that those who speak for the trees tend to grow strident and tiresome, even though they may remain lovable.
Conservative commentators have complained that The Lorax is environmentalist propaganda, which it certainly is, but it isn’t simpleminded propaganda.
The book may have depth, but what a movie needs is breadth. Like Dr. Seuss’ other books, The Lorax, very much by design, doesn’t have it. So it fell to screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (Despicable Me) and directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda to stretch and embellish—to pad, in other words—the material to feature length.
Thus we get songs—pretty good ones—and an elaborate backstory set in Thneedville, an airtight plastic paradise in which all the trees and grass are artificial and in which fresh air is purchased from a villain named O’Hare (Rob Riggle). A boy named Ted (Zach Efron) wants to find a real tree to give to a girl he likes, Audrey (Taylor Swift); on the advice of his spirited grandmother (Betty White), Ted becomes The Once-ler’s auditor.
Whether what I’ve just described can truly be called Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, the movie is lively for kids and witty for adults. The trouble, of course, is that far more than the book, it’s an unabashed product of the very cultural mindset that it criticizes.
Toward the end, Ted, Audrey and the grandmother race to plant the last truffula tree in the center of town, where everybody can see it, while the sinister O’Hare and his goons try to stop them. But in our world, there’s no shortage of public acknowledgments of the need for saner environmental policy, and in the movie, as in our world, there’s little sense of what the citizens of Thneedville (Thneedvillains?) would have to give up to make things better.
Obviously a fable for children can’t, and shouldn’t, attempt to account for all of these real-world complexities. But it shouldn’t be disingenuous about them, either. The screening I saw of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax was held at a futuristic-looking multiplex at an enormous, brightly colored outdoor shopping center that doesn’t look very different at all from Thneedville.
Before it was a mall, it was a landfill site that had spent 20 years on the EPA’s Superfund list. Somewhere back there, before all us Once-lers arrived, it must have been pristine desert.
Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax is rated PG and plays at Harkins Tempe Marketplace 16 and other theaters Valleywide.