Thursday, March 8, 2012

Unless: THE LORAX


It’d be harder to believe that a slim, lovely little Dr. Seuss book was turned into 90 minutes of empty calories if Universal hadn’t already done it twice before. How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Cat in the Hat became garish live-action patience testers. Now it’s The Lorax’s turn, but it’s escaped that fate. The studio was smart to hand it over to Illumination, a recently established computer animation studio that gave them a surprise big, and well-earned, hit a couple of years ago with Despicable Me. The resulting Lorax movie bears more than a passing resemblance to prime Seussian illustrations, but the gem of ecological melancholy inherent in the small, powerful book is surrounded by a story about a boy who zips around on a scooter and has run-ins with a despotic mayor. If that doesn’t sound quite like the Lorax you remember, you’d be right.

Seuss’s book is a simple fable, a wistful, hesitantly hopeful story of a greedy businessman, the Once-ler, who deforested the land as far as the eye can see and drove the happy wildlife far, far away. He tells his tale to a curious boy, a tale of a failed intervention on behalf of the flora and fauna by the Lorax, a sad little creature whose environmental advocacy fell on deaf ears. Though the book ends with the boy receiving a single seed, from which the forests can begin to grow once again, Seuss offers us no such release. This is only hesitant hope. The fact of the matter is, ecological damage is terrifying in its totality. One seed may not be enough. What is necessary is people who care a whole awful lot.

I’ve found The Lorax to be one of Dr. Seuss’s most powerful works, a clear statement that is hardly moralizing. It’s vivid, beautiful illustrations highlight the loss that has happened to the environment these characters inhabit while the rendering of the Lorax himself is heartbreaking in the despondency the poor guy feels when he realizes that disaster has not been averted. The look is what directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda have gotten mostly right in their adaptation. It’s a bright colorful world of plants and creatures in flashback, but in the present it’s a barren place of smog and dust. What they’ve added is a city of plastic and technology, a walled-off place that has insulated itself from the harsh realities outside.

In this new environment, they have embellished the story by giving the boy a name, Ted (as in Theodor Geisel, perhaps?), a scooter, a wacky family, the voice of Zac Efron, and a dream. He wants to impress the girl down the street (Taylor Swift) by finding her one of those trees of legend, not one of the plastic, inflatable, electric plants that fill the town, but the living kind thought long extinct. His grandmother (Betty White) tells him to go see the Once-ler (Ed Helms), so Ted escapes town and rides into the beginning of Seuss’s story.

We then get a flashback with the Lorax (Danny DeVito) trying his hardest to stop the Once-ler (and his wacky family), to no avail. The Lorax is given more to do, but it dilutes his impact. Now he’s a jokester and a blustering prankster, not just a righteous, sad, spokesman. But, back to the boy, who has an extended climactic sequence in which he zips around town with the seed, but soon has the seed stolen by the evil mayor (Rob Riggle) who has made his fortune selling bottled air. This leads to a big chase scene that has lots of action and slapstick to go through.

And there’s where the embellishment of the adaptation steps wrong. It becomes a story about a boy who needs to plant the last seed, not a story about the Lorax. The film swallows him up in order to end on a note of happiness and hope. Hooray! The environment is saved! There’s no room for the overwhelming sadness that he represents here. No need to simply hint at hope, the film makes it concrete instead. And, though I found myself still moved by the final scene which, yes, brings the Lorax back in a small, touching way, there’s something to be said for the exciting lack of this resolution in the book that is lost in favor of a Hollywood ending. Even the power of the regretful villainy of the Once-ler is diluted by the addition of the goofy mayor antagonist, who has no such complexity.

Still, I’d rather not judge the movie solely on the ways it bungles Seuss’s tone, something the 1972 animated special got more or less right. I’d rather not just be comparing versions of the story against one another and, besides, I’d be a fool to expect a perfect transcription of the book. Taken on its own terms, this new Lorax actually works fairly well. It’s a highly competent family film that’s fast, cute, and often quite appealing. It’s also a musical. It was a big surprise to me when, in the first scene, the townspeople burst into song in a big, fun, introductory Broadway-style opening number. There are a few other numbers sprinkled throughout less successfully, but the finale is a rousing, satisfying showstopper. It’s very likable.

I didn’t dislike this movie, I just found myself frustrated by its competing impulses. On the one hand, it is a solid, standard, modern, musical, CG, 3D, Hollywood family film. On the other hand, it hints at the greatness of its source material, like with the first appearance of the Lorax, a nice, small moment in which he solemnly makes a fresh stump into a tribute to a fallen tree. So The Lorax is an agreeable movie, but its so close to great I couldn’t help but leave feeling I had just watched a bit of a missed opportunity.

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