'The Lorax': Overstuffed and Underwhelming
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Like most 21st-century adaptations of Dr. Seuss's iconic children's books -- "The Cat in the Hat," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "Horton Hears a Who!" -- "The Lorax," brought to the big screen by Universal Studios' Illumination Entertainment, has a simple flaw at its own heart that makes the enterprise come crashing down. Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel, wrote elegant, simple children's books, in chiming, rhyming meter, with a vocabulary made of kid-friendly words, a world of goofy, matter-of-fact wonder and plots that got in, got out and got on with it, somehow both insubstantial and yet unforgettable. And expanding the books so they become feature-film-length stories bloats them until they burst, like turning a haiku into a novel. At what point does adaptation become treason?
"The Lorax," published in 1971, roughly a year after the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, tells the story of a young boy who, in a blasted and barren landscape, asks the Once-ler, who knows about the past, about why there aren't trees. The Once-ler explains how in his youth, he was the entrepreneur behind the "thneed," an all-in-one scarf-sweater-hat garment made from the tufts of the truffula tree. The Lorax, a bushy, orange creature materializes -- "I speak for the trees" -- and asks the Once-ler to stop cutting the trees down in such great numbers; the demand for the thneed, though, means that the area is soon completely deforested, driving the local fauna away. And soon, no trees means no thneeds, meaning no profits.
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FOX Business News anchor Lou Dobbs, and others, have attacked "The Lorax" as an anti-capitalist piece of left-wing propaganda. It's worth noting that the film and book aren't anti-capitalist so much as in favor of responsible stewardship of natural resources. (The climactic song includes the lyric "You can't reap/ what you don't sow," for but one example.) The idea that caring about the environment is a left-wing one would surely surprise Richard Nixon, who founded the EPA on his watch, or Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican president who advocated conservation, who, by Dobbs-logic, must now be viewed as socialist firebrands.
And, just as in the recent film versions of Dr. Seuss books, co-directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda (creators of "Despicable Me") need to "expand" the story of the book, so we get the addition of Ted (Zac Efron,) a young boy who longs for the tree-crazy Audrey (Taylor Swift) in Thneedville, a domed community where all buy bottled air from Mayor O'Hare (Rob Riggle). Ted goes to meet the Once-ler (Ed Helms), who tells Ted his tale and about "the legendary ... slightly annoying ... guardian of the forest, The Lorax" (Danny DeVito, irascible and grumbly and a perfect piece of casting in an imperfect film).
Co-directors Renaud and Balda earn some points for evoking the Seuss aesthetic remarkably well: the eyes, the fuzz, the randomness of it all. The only exception is the design of Riggle's O'Hare, a dwarfish plutocrat whose look and feel simply don't fit. And Helms does nice vocal work, as well as DeVito and Swift and Efron, to a degree where you wish that this talent team could have been in an original feature film or a shorter, more faithful version of "The Lorax." (Which would leave Swift out in the cold, but I think she has a side job ...)
Screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (who also wrote "Horton Hears a Who!") add chases and conspiracies and romances, and singing fish and cute physical-comedy bears, but the additions simply subtract from the clarity and simplicity of Seuss' original tale. There's references to "Mission: Impossible" and the disco classic "The Hustle" and "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Donkey Kong." But it's all padding, a huge CGI 3-D box filled with Styrofoam packing peanuts of bits and business that completely bury the sweeter, smarter, smaller story in the original book. The Lorax, the book says, speaks for the trees; speaking of "The Lorax," no more of this. Please?
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.