Since its publication in 1971 “The Lorax,” by Dr. Seuss, has occasionally been caught up in squalls of controversy, most of it cooked up by people choosing to be outraged by the book’s mild allegorical moral of ecological responsibility. In our own globally warmed, ideologically fevered moment there has been a minor flurry of predictable, pre-emptive bloviation aimed at Universal’s movie version, “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” which is supposedly part of a left-wing Hollywood conspiracy to brainwash America’s children into hating capitalism and loving trees.
Having donned recyclable 3-D glasses and seen the thing for myself, I’m not sure whether to mock the enemies of “The Lorax” for their cluelessness, to offer them reassurance or to compliment them for being half-right. Thematically the movie, directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda from a script by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul and made under the auspices of the Illumination animation studio, dutifully lectures its audience on the folly of overconsumption and the virtue of conservation. At times the imagery takes on a dark, almost apocalyptic cast as it surveys the smogged-up, denuded landscape where the trees used to be and the shiny, commercialized pseudo-utopia (called Thneedville) that an alienated humanity, having lost the memory of nature, now calls home.
Don’t be fooled. Despite its soft environmentalist message “The Lorax” is an example of what it pretends to oppose. Its relationship to Dr. Seuss’s book is precisely that of the synthetic trees that line the streets of Thneedville to the organic Truffulas they have displaced. The movie is a noisy, useless piece of junk, reverse-engineered into something resembling popular art in accordance with the reigning imperatives of marketing and brand extension.
This is not a matter of hypocrisy or corporate green-washing on the part of the filmmakers, nor of reflexive Loraxian dogmatism on my part. The corporate entertainment system has shown itself perfectly capable of injecting soul into what it sells, and at inflecting some of its products with a critical spirit. “Wall-E” is a transcendent example, brilliantly embracing its own contradictions, but there are plenty of other movies, animated and not, that manage to pay tribute to the beauty of the natural world even as they revel in giddy, merchandising-friendly artifice.
And Theodor Seuss Geisel, it should be noted, was hardly averse to commerce. He started out in advertising and built his middle name into a formidable brand that, like the Once-ler’s empire in “The Lorax,” grew bigger and bigger and bigger. But in his lifetime Geisel exercised strict quality control, a practice that his estate has abandoned, authorizing a series of cinematic abominations both live-action (“Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat”) and animated (“Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who!” and now this one).
“The Lorax,” while it nods in the direction of Dr. Seuss’s distinctive, trippy drawing style, treats his sensibility as, at best, a decorative element. The movie’s silliness, like its preachiness, is loud and slightly hysterical, as if young viewers could be entertained only by a ceaseless barrage of sensory stimulus and pop-culture attitude, or instructed by songs that make the collected works of Up With People sound like Metallica. The simple fable of the Lorax and the Once-ler is wrapped in gaudy, familiar business and festooned with grim, forced cheer. What do the kids want? Car chases! Kooky grandmas! Pint-size villains flanked by thuggish minions! Things that fly! Taylor Swift!
“The Lorax” has all that and more. (The grandma is voiced by the meme of the moment Betty White; a villain added for the movie is voiced by Rob Riggle.) It tells parallel stories, one about a young boy named Ted (Zac Efron), who in order to impress a girl (Ms. Swift) sets out to find an actual, living tree. (Of course the girl couldn’t possibly go out and find the tree herself, a sexist assumption that is, unfortunately, the only authentically Seussian aspect of the movie.) He ventures over the metal wall that encloses Thneedville and finds the Once-ler (Ed Helms), a hermit who tells the tale of his own encounter with the cranky orange Lorax (Danny DeVito).
“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” Those words are a permanent part of the literary heritage, and no movie can change that. And when the Lorax is around, warily befriending the ambitious Once-ler, you can almost believe you are in the Seussian universe. The parable of an ambitious entrepreneur who lets his ingenuity curdle into unchecked greed is more or less intact, and his corruption is conveyed in a few memorable, semi-inspired visual flights. But these only emphasize the hectic, willful mediocrity that characterizes the rest of the movie, and far too many of its kind.
In the film as in the book, the Once-ler ravages the landscape and destroys the Truffula trees to manufacture thneeds, knitted garments that have multiple uses but no real utility. Demand for them is insatiable for a while, and then, once the trees are gone, the thneeds are forgotten, partly because nobody really needed them in the first place. There is an obvious metaphor here, but the movie is blind to it, and to everything else that is interesting or true in the story it tries to tell.
“The Lorax” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). Scary scenes, a bit of naughtiness, nonstop hucksterism.
Dr. Seuss’ the Lorax
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda; written by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, based on the book by Dr. Seuss; edited by Ken Schretzmann, Claire Dodgson and Steven Liu; music by John Powell, songs by Mr. Powell and Mr. Paul; art direction by Eric Guillon; production design by Yarrow Cheney; produced by Chris Meledandri and Janet Healy; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes.
WITH THE VOICES OF: Danny DeVito (the Lorax), Ed Helms (the Once-ler), Zac Efron (Ted), Taylor Swift (Audrey), Rob Riggle (Mr. O’Hare), Jenny Slate (Ted’s Mom) and Betty White (Grammy Norma).