“The Lorax” Tries Too Hard to Speak

Courtesy of Universal Pictures


“The Lorax” opened on March 2, a perhaps superfluous detail save that it coincides with the late Dr. Seuss’ actual birthday; he would have been 108 years old as children streamed into theaters to watch one of his picture books come alive in 3-D. It’s a shame that this movie was given such an eminent tribute, though, because in terms of honoring the man’s actual vision, “The Lorax” strays far away from the simplicity and earnest virtue that let Seuss’ tales stick in our memories.

There are really two plotlines in “The Lorax”: a framing device that takes place in a town called Thneedville and the story of before Thneedville existed. The outer story of Ted (Zac Efron), a 12-year-old resident of Thneedville whose infatuation with Audrey (Taylor Swift) takes him on a journey to find a living tree in a contained world where no actual living plants exist. Thneedville, an artificial town, is defined by a utopian happiness and the almost dictatorial presence of business mogul O’Hare (Rob Riggle), who sells bottled air to the townspeople.

Ted’s quest for a tree brings him outside the city walls, much to the chagrin of O’Hare, who fears that the boy’s discovery for trees will bring down his business. If he finds a way to bring fresh air to the people, O’Hare reasons, his business will fail and he will lose all of his money. Nonetheless, Ted finds his way outside and to the Once-ler (Ed Helms), an old man who tells him the story of why there are no more living trees in the world.

This inner story tells of the Once-ler’s journey as a young man to the Truffula Forest (as in, trees with fur instead of leaves) and his own rise to monetary power due to the success of a product that exploits the Truffula Trees. The Once-ler’s tale delineates how the lush, glowing forest turned into the present-day desolation of the landscape around Ted’s world and Thneedville. Throughout this deforestation, the Lorax (Danny DeVito), guardian of the forest, gives ominous warnings and tries his hardest to stop the Once-ler from destroying the natural world.

Scenes in the Once-ler’s tale far exceed the worth of those within Thneedville, though Efron and Swift (along with the help of Betty White, who voices Ted’s grandmother) do an adequate job setting up the framing device. Where Ted’s storyline seems concentrated on a few very simple plot elements and a struggle against O’Hare, the real charm comes through the Once-ler. These scenes are a much more aesthetically pleasing and emotionally appealing side of the movie; not only are they more stunning visually and imbued with the kind of whimsical imagery of Dr. Seuss, but the characters in the Truffula Forest are much easier to latch onto. Harmonizing fish and an adorable squadron of wide-eyed bears make perfect accompaniment to Helms and DeVito’s conflict, elements expected of the production company that also invented the minions from “Despicable Me.”

Despite how these brilliantly colored sequences in the pre-deforestation Truffula Forest make up for probably the best scenes in the entire movie, even they are not immune to the contamination of largely pointless musical numbers. The worst offender is a scene to accompany a song called “How Bad Can I Be,” one that not only interrupts the flow of the movie, but also turns the Once-ler from an appealing protagonist torn between his ambition and the fate of the environment into a money-craving lunatic with a money-green suit. These musical numbers are so aimless and confusing that it seems ridiculous that the movie was even turned into a musical –– such a gross misstep that it seems almost derivative of the success of “The Muppets” last year, whose Academy Award-winning music contribute to that film’s overall success.

On the subject of the moral of the movie, a pretty obvious message that deforestation will eventually cause the world to turn into a barren landscape and that corporate greed will eventually kill every natural being on the planet, is respectable. But the way that “The Lorax” chooses to portray this seems to beat a dead horse after a while and would be enough to turn off even the most susceptible child. It’s great that the makers of this film wanted to reinvigorate the message of the book by putting it in a more modern form, but in this critic’s eyes the movie fails to create a connection to the original moral message, instead concentrating on trying (unsuccessfully) to create catchy songs. “Let It Grow,” the song most geared toward this environmentalist message, seems to think people won’t recognize how it blatantly rips off of The Beatles’ “Let It Be.”

The simpler parts of the movie, symbolized by the smaller non-talking characters like the animals in the forest, are done well. Despite my expectation that Danny DeVito would disappoint as the Lorax, I truly did appreciate his portrayal; the reason why “The Lorax” fails in my eyes is a simple matter of setting out to accomplish too much: between the musical numbers, the moral message and the multiple shorelines, the film gets convoluted and ends up disappointing –– an ironic fault, considering how two of the film’s characters let ambition destroy them.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5