It was probably only a matter of time before Dr. Seuss was finally inducted into the 21st century and saw his name used to sell any number of glorious consumer products, products that you are required to purchase if you desire to lead any kind of happy, successful life. Universal, no stranger to the need for strategic partnerships, has enlisted Seuss’ name, and the name of its latest film, The Lorax, for a broad array of plastic things that you can buy to show your support for the environment. IHOP offers up something called “The Lorax’s Breakfast,” consisting of green eggs and ham (from a completely different Seuss tale altogether, mind you); Hilton is offering an all-expense paid trip to Costa Rica; HP provides something called a “printer app” so that you can more environmentally convert dead trees to unnecessary office reports; and, of course, Mazda has decided to use the premiere of the film to launch a new SUV.
None of this has anything to do with the quality of the film, of course; it’s all just a large reminder of the irony of a movie studio that’s part of the massive NBC/Universal/GE/Comcast mega-corporation earnestly attempting to make a movie that attempts to paint said mega-corporations in a villainous light, that attempts to convince its audience of the importance of sustainability and environmental causes while also, again, selling them SUVs. It is one of the more postmodern children’s films in that regard, if taken not just as a film but as a brand; it’d be easy to imagine it sliding directly into a David Foster Wallace novel footnote with a smirk and a wink.
Leaving aside the icky trappings of its release, The Lorax proves to be a perfectly competent and often-entertaining animated feature. It’s not possessed of much subtlety, alas. Young Ted is a resident of Thneedville, an apparent utopia wherein everything is made of plastic and the residents all buy fresh air from Mayor O’Hare, a slimy corporatist who prevents anyone from leaving the town, and is content with building more plastic factories, which will create more pollution, which will in turn cause the residents to be forced to buy more air from him. O’Hare’s character design is one of the creepiest in recent children’s film history, borrowing liberally from the shorter characters in The Incredibles; only seeing him in motion can really do his revolting features any justice.
Before you can make a single Total Recall joke, Ted, infatuated with his next door, environmentally-minded neighbor Audrey, finds a way out of town in the hopes of finding a tree for her. Of course, no trees are to be found, leading Ted to commune with a bizarre inhabitant of the now-decimated natural landscape, the Once-ler, who tells him a story about how all of the trees came to disappear. It, of course, was the man’s own fault; he chopped down the trees to make a vacuous piece of clothing, only to see him and his corporation ruined when the last tree fell.
So far, so good, theoretically: chopping trees down = bad, a desire to improve the world = good, rapacious greed = bad, love = good, etc., etc. None of these are messages that are very difficult to disagree with, which makes the film feel more preachy than persuasive. Yes, of course, it’s a very bad thing to chop down every tree in the world. Yes, of course, we shouldn’t have to live in a consumer culture where even our lawn ornaments require batteries. Yes, of course, big corporations will almost always prioritize their profits over any kind of community well-being. These are statements of such powerful blandness that it is almost surprising to hear people disagree with them, although of course such voices have been heard, which perhaps proves the necessity of such a film and the reiteration of such messages.
That doesn’t mean that adult audiences won’t find the whole thing fairly platitudinous, though. Thus it’s a good thing that Illumination Entertainment manages to pack its running time with enough bright humor and well-executed 3D to at least keep everything visually interesting; this is a film that is often sterling and sharp in its details, from minor textual jokes to gags in the corner of a frame. The woodland animals that are eventually betrayed by the Once-ler are perhaps too easily slotted into the comic relief role, as the tiny bears and fish waste no opportunity to come across as extremely cute. It’s a film that has to strike a balance between being instructive and being entertaining, and largely succeeds, to the point of relatively consistent chuckles if not uproarious laughter
So far as the voicework goes, it’s a mostly unexceptional cast, with Zac Efron being good as the voice of Ted and Ed Helms unfortunately coming across as more off-putting than amusing as the Once-Ler; something about his voice coming at you without seeing his face winds up causing some vague sense of annoyance. Your ability to give credence to Danny DeVito as The Lorax might depend on how well you remember his more nude appearances on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, but he does seem appropriate for the heavily-mustachioed if ultimately impotent protector of the forest.
Ultimately, the changes that have been made to stretch out Dr. Seuss’ story to feature length have resulted in some odd permutations on his tale: Ted, for example, seems less concerned about the trees than he is in getting Audrey to make out with him. True enough that love has made men do wonderful things, but surely growing a tree ought to be its own reward, at least in a children’s film? It’s not a subtle movie, at any rate, and that’s what ultimately prevents The Lorax from being very rewarding for older audiences; it’s facile to compare every non-Pixar CGI animation to the efforts of that studio, but no one will claim that this movie is better, either as an entertainment or an environmentalist message, than WALL-E or any of Miyazaki’s films that deal with environmental issues. Its ultimate message, that forgiveness is better than vengeance, is rather obvious, but then, so is the movie as a whole.