Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote many children’s books and, like most books accessible to young children, they tended to be short and sweet. It might not be a bad idea to adapt four or five of the better ones into short films and bundle them for release as a feature. But no, Hollywood producers are dead-set on doing them one at a time and pumping them so full of hot air that precious little remains of what made them great to start with. And so it is with The Lorax: a simple parable about sustainability and moderation turns into a bloated, lumbering thing nobody needs as much as they might think they do.
The original story is simple. A boy ventures beyond the edge of his town to encounter the mysterious figure of the Once-ler, who tells him about how and why the trees have all gone away, featuring the magical one-time guardian of the forests, the Lorax.
But in order to make this a feature film on its own, the framing story must be inflated; the boy is Ted (Zac Efron), who lives with his mother (Jenny Slate) and grandmother (Betty White) in the domed city of Thneedville, outside of which lies a post-apocalyptic wasteland that it seems everyone inside has utterly forgotten, and inside of which air is sold by the greedy industrialist Alistair O’Hare (Rob Riggle). The concept of “negative externalities” is given a physical form to more effectively beat it into the audience. Anyway, Ted has a crush on Audrey (Taylor Swift), and Audrey — out of everyone in town — knows about real, living trees, inspiring Ted to go outside and seek out the hermitic Once-ler (Ed Helms) to find out how to get a tree for Audrey.
The Once-ler (at last) tells how he’d invented the thneed — yes, the city is named for a fad that no longer exists — which he’d said was a thing that everyone needs. But to produce them and keep up with demand he’d had to clearcut all the truffula trees, thus demolishing the ecosystem and driving off the local wildlife and polluting air and water alike, over the objections of the Lorax (Danny DeVito).
So on top of the existing cautionary tale we now have a cartoonish villain as a straw man to knock down. And it’s easy to boo and hiss at O’Hare while sympathizing with the Once-ler, who never really meant any harm in the first place. He even has a whole musical number asking “how bad can I be?” while displaying all the rationalizations and rhetorical tricks that real-world industrialists use to get us to let them off the hook, all flying by too fast to really be internalized by anyone not already aware of them.
Almost nobody really thinks explicitly about how they can gain at the expense of the environment, so scolding those few who do only serves to tell ourselves that we aren’t the problem. The good people of Thneedville prove themselves by allowing a tree to be planted, but nobody suggests they curb their consumption, or suggests that they are themselves culpable for the mess they finally see outside. And there’s no hint that the city itself could be brought down by this carelessness; as far as the movie shows, they could go on forever as they are, with all their damage happening conveniently out of sight.
The Lorax was once about being aware of our effects on the world around us, especially those that aren’t quantified as any one person’s fiscal profit or loss, and about taking a long view on the results of our actions. Now we have an overblown adaptation with dozens of commercial tie-ins — including a Mazda SUV of all things — and a totally unnecessary 3-D option. If you must see it, save the surcharge, not to mention the energy demand for sterilizing and refurbishing your polarized glasses. It’s literally the least you can do.
Worth It: no. Just get the book (or check it out from the library).
Bechdel Test: fail.