Dr. Seuss’s beloved character, the Lorax, is now making highly suspicious appearances in commercials for SUVs. Though these are of a supposedly green-friendly variety, one might look askance at the computer-animated adaptation of The Lorax that has inspired these endorsements.
Such misgiving is not the result of the movie’s injustice to Dr. Seuss. If pure bastardization of the source is a primary concern, The Lorax holds fewer offenses than the misbegotten live-action versions of classic picture books like How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and, most chilling, The Cat in the Hat. Instead, the animation in The Lorax brings Seuss’ drawing style to bright and colorful (if 3D-muted) life, without freakish make-up or tacky sets. In particular, the computerized Lorax himself, bright orange with glorious flowing mustache, is an aesthetic—and, thanks to Danny DeVito, vocal—delight.
The Lorax is a central figure in a story told to 12-year-old Ted (voiced by Zac Efron). A nice kid living in Thneed-Ville with his mom (Jenny Slate) and his sassy grandma (Betty White), he sneaks away to visit the mysterious Once-ler (Ed Helms), whose recounts that as a young man, he invented a product that required some deforestation, which summoned the Lorax who, as readers know, “speaks for the trees.” The Once-ler’s explanation of how Thneed-Ville became nature-free is intercut with Ted’s present-day investigations, stymied by the big-business villain Mr. O’Hare (Rob Riggle). This basic flashback structure comes from the Seuss book, but the filmmakers deserve credit for sticking to it, even if Ted’s motivation for seeking the Once-ler is an aggressively heteronormative crush on Audrey (Taylor Swift), a red-haired artist who longs to see a real tree.
This motivation leads in a roundabout way to a caution against consumer culture. But, for a movie about the dangers of manufacturing, The Lorax feels awfully plastic. Like a lot of big-studio computer animation, it uses its processing power to stay as busy as possible: Helms does his needy jabbering routine as the younger Once-ler, the movie’s songs are accompanied by faux-ironic, mugging-heavy dancing, and at one point, the sassy grandma rides a makeshift snowboard, just shy of donning sunglasses and guzzling Mountain Dew.
The movie also engages in some presumably pro-environment recycling: the Once-ler meets a band of forest creatures who resemble the singing slugs from Flushed Away, the little aliens from Toy Story, and the minions from Despicable Me (the well-liked 2010 movie made by the team behind The Lorax). In other words, they’re an amalgam of several better cartoons, as adorable as they are desperate to delight. Despicable Me had a bit of this craven need to please, but it was redeemed by some visual wit and inventive voice-acting. The Lorax, in contrast, has a great quantity of visuals and voice-acting, but less to offer beyond well-rendered window dressing.
With all of these bells, whistles, songs, and whiz-bang action pieces, the Lorax himself winds up lurking in the background of his own movie—a marginalized community organizer. Granted, the function of the Lorax is to warn in vain, not save the day. But the filmmakers seem downright uncomfortable with this character’s absence of a Screenwriting 101 journey—hence the creation of plucky, hip, arc-ready, and altogether irritating Ted, voiced by a generically attitudinal Efron. (Ted’s initial skepticism toward the Once-ler is supposed to make him an easier point of identification; instead, he comes across as callow, and a little dull.)
The older Once-ler, performed with more restraint by Helms, comes closest to fulfilling the movie’s promise; his storytelling accesses a sense of regret in between scenes of Ted zooming around on his motor scooter. The movie tries to wring additional pathos from the younger Once-ler’s friendship with the Lorax and the creature’s disappointment in him, but they only have a handful of scenes together. The Lorax is a goodhearted movie, but it lacks the courage of simplicity, interpreting Seuss’s flights of fancy as blueprints for something bigger and louder. It’s a pretty tree with too many trimmings.