I think in the realm of 3D animated children’s fare, The Lorax might be the first such movie to come out in years that really and truly plays for kids. Adults, despite the themes and issues in play here, will probably have a much harder time with it; it’s very simply broken down, plotted, and dictated, without that much by way of nuance or subtlety. It wears its environmentalist message on its big, bright sleeves, unashamedly so. Very rarely do Chris Renaud– one half of the directorial duo behind 2010’s Despicable Me— and his partner-in-crime for this project, Kyle Balda, wink at the parents who inevitably represent a portion of their audience. And maybe that’s not only wise but a sensibility that should be encouraged, because far too often pandering to the grown-ups can be unbalancing. Either way, it’s not the film’s narrow scope that proves to be problematic.
In fact, much of what’s wrong with The Lorax— adapted from the beloved Dr. Seuss book of the same name, about the destruction of all of the world’s Truffula trees at the hands of the Once-ler (Ed Helms), and his interactions with the eponymous fuzzy orange guardian spirit of the forest (Danny DeVito)– hampered Pixar’s 2008 smash hit Wall-E. How do you sell a children’s film about protecting and preserving the environment in the face of the insidious nature of marketing? In the same stroke, both films speak to the dangers of vulgar materialism and unchecked consumerism while capitalizing on ancillary sales; watch the film, then buy the toys, games, costumes, bed sheets, lunch boxes, and snack foods! It’s blatant hypocrisy. But it might also be part and parcel of making a kids’ movie with a message, and strictly speaking those outside displays of salesmanship don’t impact the quality of the film itself. They simply dilute the sentiment.
That incongruity doesn’t stop people from politicizing the film with complaints about liberal Hollywood indoctrinating children. Responding to Fox News opinion pieces about art is stupid– it’s like arguing with trolls on Internet forums, only without the chance of a moderator ban– but you’d think a film against rampant consumerism that shoots itself in the foot with advertising tie-ins for disposable diapers and SUVs would make Lou Dobbs downright gleeful. If we accept the premise that The Lorax is a strike against right-wing ideals*, then it should be pointed out that Illumination Entertainment’s treatment of the story is far kinder to industrialists via its reinvention of the Once-ler. Here, he’s sympathetic, and with his wide-eyed idealism and ambitions to provide something necessary to everyone, he almost seems downright left-wing.
I realize that up to this point I’ve talked politics more than I’ve talked about the film itself, but The Lorax doesn’t ever explicitly go into politics or suggest what the film’s primary antagonist, Mayor O’Hare (Rob Riggle), believes in apart from money. It’s certainly easier to envision him as a cash mongering right-winger, but classical conservative beliefs don’t support consumption for consumption’s sake. The Lorax objectively only stands against that concept of pure greed, and quite clearly the film believes that such avarice can originate from even the most unlikely sources. The Once-ler is the man responsible for the world we’re introduced to at the start of the film, in a peppy and energetic musical number that establishes the film’s central location– Thneedville, where plastic trees abound and air is purchased from Mayor O’Hare. And frankly? The Once-ler’s really not a bad guy. Misguided, misled, and naive, but certainly not a font of evil. If the Once-ler could cause worldwide deforestation, then who couldn’t?
Most of this conversation– okay, all of it– will be lost on the film’s intended audience, though maybe it illustrates that there’s more going on under the film’s hood than meets the eye. That doesn’t really save The Lorax for adults, but that shouldn’t matter if the film delights the kids in the crowd. I haven’t been a kid for a long time, but I feel confident in saying that this is a film that speaks directly to children; it’s fun, it’s bright and pleasing to look at, and the protagonists are characters they can easily identify with, particularly plucky child hero Ted (Zac Efron). Moreover, it’s a movie of simple morals. Don’t break your promises. Don’t take what isn’t yours. Stand up for what you believe in. Don’t harm others for personal gain. And if all of the film’s best lessons get across to those kids, then maybe their parents won’t so much mind the picture being somewhat dismissive of their presence.
There are some things about The Lorax that should please the older set, particularly those with an affinity for the art of animation. If nothing else, the film proves how good Illumination Entertainment is in its particular field; by and large, the animation here is pretty stellar, with the most impressive element being the clear improvement that the studio’s animators have made since Despicable Me. The characters’ faces and bodies are expressive, their movements are fluid, and the overall design schemes of both the people and the locations range from solid to fantastic. The voice performances are generally engaging as well; Helms makes for a great Once-ler, while Efron and Taylor Swift (as Audrey, Ted’s love interest and the reason he seeks out the Once-ler in the first place) have decent chemistry together and fairly high individual honesty.
Best representing Illumination’s aesthetic and sensibilities are the little asides with the supporting cast of animated, adorable animals (something done in Despicable Me)– for example, a static-charged bear shocking a fish to end a sequence– and the scenes that take place in the forest where the Once-ler sets up shop, which are sure to be favorites among adults and youths alike. It’s hard not to wish we spent more time there, largely because the film needed so much more of DeVito’s dulcet Jersey tones. The Lorax’s presence in the book is minimal but Illumination and DeVito breathe so much life into him that the film loses something when he’s not on screen– humor, but also a sense of magic and (strangely) morality. It’s the Dr. Seuss brand of magic that The Lorax lacks in total, though, and which it even somewhat teases. It’s almost innocent enough, but one fears that if Seuss’s brand of whimsy isn’t understood by the film’s characters, then neither will it be understood by its audience.