Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (** / ****)
Starring: Danny DeVito, Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, Ed Helms
Director: Chris Renaud
I was one of millions who grew up with Dr. Seuss’ books, but they were the ones that didn’t feature his beloved characters. I didn’t resonate with The Cat in the Hat as much as, for instance, Hop on Pop. Feature-length adaptations haven’t resonated much with moviegoers either, resulting in mass amounts of teeth-gnashing by fans over the past dozen years, of course due to the utter abominations in 2000’s The Grinch and Mike Myers’ 2003 take on the chapeau-wearing feline, which thankfully resulted in Seuss’ estate pulling the plug on live-action movies. 2008’s all-CGI Horton Hears a Who! was a much-needed breath of fresh air, as well as redemption for star Jim Carrey after having desecrated the Grinch only eight years earlier.
Four years later, we have The Lorax, which isn’t nearly as bad as said disasters, but is a bit of a step backwards nonetheless. It’s an absolutely beautiful film with such vivid colors brought to life by crisp animation. I mean, I could stare all day at a forest full of Truffula trees, those fluorescent fuzzy lollipops with thin white trunks and cotton-like bright pink, orange and yellow tufts of foliage. And then you have the eponymous Lorax himself, a pudgy, furry mustachioed tangerine so cute that I wanted to hug him whenever he was onscreen.
It’s a pity that not nearly enough devotion was – wait for it – given to the story. Making a more recent comparison, there was last year’s Puss in Boots, in which the animation was nothing remarkable but contained an entertaining mystery yarn. Sure, The Lorax was already at a disadvantage to begin with the script having to stretch out a simple, compact plot to feature length, and kids will enjoy it nonetheless, but surely we oldsters deserved better than the usual humans-are-bad-for-the-environment plot that collapses under the weight of stale Hollywood conventions and weak voiceover work that seemed more a result of pandering to pop culture than finding the best talent available. I mean, were Zac Efron and Taylor Swift really the best choices out there for the lead roles?
Anyway, we open in Thneedville, a cramped town fueled not by fuzzy sweater-like contraptions, instead excess human consumption, a bigger-is-better mentality, artificial trees and literally inflatable shrubbery; it’s a synthetic Pleasantville. The plot centers around teenager Ted Wiggins (Efron), who’s enamored by the cute blonde (naturally) girl next door, Audrey (Swift). She’s painted a massive Truffula mural on the side of her house, and longs to see the genuine article in person.
Ted’s search leads him to the reclusive Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms), who’s holed up in a ramshackle house in the middle of the expansive ruins of a Truffula forest, and whose identity is never fully revealed; he speaks to Ted only through a crack in his front door. He recalls his past as a greedy entrepreneur who lined his pockets by doing away with every single one of the trees. The Once-ler then gives Ted the last remaining Truffula seed, the boy sets off to plant it, and The End.
Okay, not exactly, but that’s pretty much the extent of the storyline, which would’ve been satisfying on its own terms. But alas, as well as cramming a bunch of original characters into the film, there’s plenty of Hollywood 101 Kleenex to stuff into this celluloid brassiere. Enter stock villain that needs to be dispatched: Thneedville’s diminutive and nefarious mayor Mr. O’Hare (Rob Riggle), who’s made a fortune from manufacturing bottled air while prohibiting any presence of naturally-air-purifying real trees. Of course, he wants the Truffula seed, and he sends two oversized henchmen (who look suspiciously like Secret Service agents) to retrieve it, presumably by force. Of course, the good guys have to keep it away from him. This all climaxes into…a car chase scene. Hoo-hah. Best of all, Ted’s plan of action is kicked off not out of environmental concerns, but merely to impress a girl.
The voice work is as equally uninspired. While DeVito’s gruff tone is perfect for the cynical title character, he sadly has not a whole lot of screen time, as it’s been sacrificed to the pointless focus on the human characters. it’s a cinch to picture Efron and the cloyingly wholesome Swift, both of whom have no business being in this production to begin with, standing behind the studio microphones reciting their lines, as they bring no originality to their already-bland characters. (Audrey was named after Theodor Seuss Geisel’s widow: Ted and Audrey. Subtle.) Even though he was in the terrible “Hangover II” not too long ago, Helms disappears nicely into the Once-ler, and he’s unknown enough that he can pull that off.
Incredibly, as of this writing, rumors of a CGI movie of The Cat in the Hat have been floating around, likely in attempt to atone for the sins of the 2003 flop. However, while the Lorax may speak for the trees, I write about what the audience sees, and so I have to say: No more Dr. Seuss adaptations for awhile, please!
© 2012 Jane F. Carlson