Mania Grade: D
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- Starring the Voices of: Danny DeVito, Ed Helms, Zac Ephron, Betty White, and Taylor Swift
- Written by: Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio
- Directed by: Chris Renaud
- Studio: Universal Pictures
- Rating: PG
- Run Time: 94 minutes
Mania Review: The Lorax
The doctor is out...
By Rob Vaux
March 01, 2012
© Universal Pictures/Robert Trate
I've spent the last few weeks grappling with the dilemma of John Carter, a good film seemingly being sunk by a poor ad campaign. The Lorax represents the polar opposite of that equation: a very good promotional push promising a marvelous interpretation of the classic Dr. Seuss book, only to reveal a poorly developed, out-of-touch piece of agit-prop that systematically tramples its source material beneath steel-shod corporate boots. Given the current political climate, it's hard to image any scenario where Seuss's quiet environmentalist tragedy wouldn't engender a fuss. The surprise is how much ammo the film provides anti-environmentalists. It's almost a parody of smug Hollywood liberalism: burying its vital message beneath finger wagging, simplistic solutions and feel-good emotions that undermine the whole point of the piece.
The trouble starts with the basic nature of the endeavor: take a 20-odd page children's book and expand it to fill 90 minutes of screen time. We've seen how poorly this formula works in everything from the feature-lengh Grinch to The Cat in the Hat to Horton Hears a Who. Clearly, the message has not yet been received. So rather than focus on Seuss's material from the get-go, we get a lengthy backstory that doesn't so much frame the core text as swallow it whole. The town of Thneedville lives in a world devoid of anything natural. Mechanical trees and blow-up bushes decorate the landscape while a giant evil corporation sells them fresh air to compensate for the toxic fumes they normally breathe. The status quo is disrupted when a young boy (voiced by Zac Ephron) heads out in search of a real tree to impress his would-be girlfriend, and finds himself at the distant home of the Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms), who knows why things are the way they are.
From there, it segues into a variation of the Seuss story, recounting how the Once-ler arrived in a land of puffy trees and happy animals, then systematically destroyed it all in the name of profit. He's opposed in these efforts by the Lorax (Danny DeVito), who "speaks for the trees" and reminds him of the damage he's doing in an effort to appeal to his conscience. As with most Seuss movie efforts, the Lorax's personality shifts to accommodate his marquee voice, becoming irascible and slightly comical where the original Seuss character was much more tragic. He's forced to deal with all manner of ill-advised slapstick as well, with various woodland characters engaging in kid-friendly pratfalls while the Once-ler slowly devastates their world.
It's excruciating to watch, but the real damage comes in the superfluous narrative baggage that the filmmakers foist upon the production. The actual Seuss stuff occupies an appallingly small amount of screen time -- largely limited to a single musical number and a few bits of support -- while the surrounding narrative ruthlessly undermines it at every turn. Much of the film entails barely connected slapstick pieces designed largely as space-filler and generating thoroughly vetted "jokes" that most respectable productions abandoned for dead years ago. Even worse, The Lorax is eager to find easy scapegoats for its dilemma rather than calling upon us to take responsibility for our actions. So the well-meaning Once-ler gets a horrible family to goad him into his actions, while the framing device gives us an evil corporate executive holding the town hostage with his bottled air. With such easy villains come equally easy solutions. A few grand gestures are enough to change everyone's attitudes about the trees, and the book's somber finale is completely compromised in favor of superfluous warm fuzzies. Nothing about it evinces any real conviction or bravery. It never suggests any real approaches to the problem, such as reducing consumerism or having fewer kids. It simply admonishes us to ignore what the bad guys say and/or engage in a few meaningless gestures to undo all the damage we've done.
Beneath it lies a curious contempt for people in general. The film's characters are all venal and shallow, while director Chris Renaud points out their foolishness with an air of sneering condescension. The film enjoys lecturing us as if we were ignorant children, taking crude swipes at clear targets as we weren't capable of understanding anything more sophisticated. It might be able to get away with that if the rest of it had anything to offer, but most of the jokes fall flat, while the bevvy of mediocre songs are often so poorly mixed that we can barely understand the lyrics at all.
Good elements are few and far between. The CG imagery admirably expands upon Seuss's visual look to encompass the new development and Betty White steals the show yet again as a wise grandmother who points the way to the Once-ler. As usual a better script and a little more attention to the purpose of the exercise might have turned it all around as quickly as it went wrong. As it stands, however, The Lorax evokes more revulsion than sadness: appropriating a gentle, heartbreaking story more relevant now than ever and transforming it into a marketing abomination designed to foster the very consumerism its author so passionately argued against. The character in the book never came down from that hole in the sky; one look at the movie and I'm ready to follow him.