A 3D musical animated comedy with a strong environmental message? It could only come from the mind of Dr. Seuss, although fans may not recognise this Thneed-ville.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, has been educating and delighting children and adults alike for decades. His most beloved works The Cat in the Hat, Horton Hears A Who! and How The Grinch Stole Christmas have all made their way to the big screen. The Lorax is arguably his most controversial works, being an unabashed criticism of the logging industry and aimed squarely at converting kids to the environmental cause. It had such an impact that the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers’ Association of America wrote a counterargument called The Truax!
Expanding upon Seuss’ classic tome, which is essentially a conversation between a young boy and the mysterious Once-Ler, the boy is now Ted Wiggins (voiced by Zac Efron), a boy so enamoured with the dreamy Audrey (Taylor Swift) that he sets out to find her a real tree. Their hometown of Thneed-ville is a wholly artificial one, with even the plants and animals manufactured. Defying his mother and the city’s corporate overlord Aloysius O’Hare (Rob Riggle), who has found a way to sell air to his citizens, Ted finds the Once-Ler (Ed Helms) living in an old house on the outskirts of town. There he hears the terrible tale of what happens to all the trees, and the truth behind their protector The Lorax (Danny DeVito).
Seuss purists will be immediately up in arms at the liberties writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul have taken with the source material, ones that simultaneously aim to pay tribute to the spirit of the book but miss some of its finer points. Ted, for example, is not purely motivated by the desire to see a tree or save the planet, but rather to impress a girl that happens to dig trees. Likewise, the faceless Once-Ler is give a backstory and a face, something Seuss was careful not to do in the 1971 publication. Yet this also brings the politics of the piece to greater light, bringing a face to the misguided logging industry and a slightly cynical edge to the idealism of youth.
The message becomes a little forced in the final act, and this may have something to do with the ultimate source of funding. The Lorax is a Universal Pictures film, a subsidiary of General Electric. Known in the past for a large amount of pollution and environmentally damaging activities. However, in the last few years, the company has spent billions of dollars on its Ecomagination initiative, which has had its critics but is largely hailed as a successful example of how to do much more than simply “greenwash” a company. Indeed, the film criticises this very act of so-called greenwashing is parodied in a “Lorax Approved” commercial within the film. So what is most surprising is just how unforgiving the depiction of industry is in the film, showing the lure of the almighty dollar in a cash-based musical number similar to Tex Richman’s rap in last year’s The Muppets. Is this the liberal Hollywood that conservative media loves to hound biting its own tail, or finally taking a strong and unambiguous stand?
The film itself is beautifully animated, especially sequences in which the Truffula Tree forest is showered in marshmallows in flashback. DeVito is perfectly cast as the titular Lorax, and he is noticeably absent when his character is not on screen. Efron sounds a tiny bit old to be the 12-year-old boy he is portraying, and Swift adds little to the role of Audrey other than a name above the credits, but the real joy is hearing Betty White as the feisty grandmother. What does detract from the film’s central message is a series of ill-paced songs, and with the exception of the opening and closing numbers, add very little to the story and at worst grind the whole thing to a screeching halt.
Changes and music aside, The Lorax is still a film with a message, albeit a heavy-handed one, that stands in stark contrast to the other mindless cash-ins that have populated family cinema over the last few years. As the US box office numbers have demonstrated, there is an audience out there for positive messages about protecting our fragile planet. Like the closing song suggests, we should just let it grow.
The Lorax was released in Australia on 29 March 2012 from Universal.