Adapting a children's book, especially one as beloved (and brief) as Dr. Seuss' gentle eco-fable "The Lorax," is an unenviable task. There's a sliver of narrative that must be expanded, padded, and teased out, while an attempt must be made to maintain all of the things that people love about Dr. Seuss (nee Theodor Geisel) and his books – the sing-songy rhythm, the loop-de-loop design work, the easy surrealism. In short: it's kind of a bitch. Or a snitch. Or a sliver-de-glitch. But the good folks at Illumination Entertainment (who made a surprise hit out of the decidedly under-the-radar "Despicable Me") have done a respectable job bringing "The Lorax" to the screen. It's just a shame that the fidelity to the source material, on both narrative and design levels, seems to have taken the steam out of something that could have been truly special.
"The Lorax" begins in an altogether different place than the picture book, introducing us (after a brief prologue meant to show off the dazzling 3D effects more than anything else) to the world of Thneed-ville, a town that is almost completely synthetic – smog chokes the air, hedges and shrubs have been replaced with inflatable facsimiles, and when a child goes swimming in a local lake, he comes out glowing. There's even an evil industrialist who sells O'Hare's Air, freshly phony oxygen, available in cans and bottles like Crystal Clear Pepsi. (We get all this information via a catchy musical number, written by composer John Powell and co-screenwriter Cinco Paul, with a glittery production finish courtesy of "Umbrella" co-producer "Tricky" Stewart.)
If there's a red flag that's already gone up, we agree: Ted's mission, to find a tree and eventually repopulate Thneed-ville with oxygen-providing topiaries, is simple-minded and lacking in depth. He just wants to impress a girl. That's it. He doesn't want to see a repopulation of Truffula Trees for anything more altruistic than that. It's a narrative sticking point that the movie never really unglues, and it's a shame that the movie, for all its attempts to expand and complicate the world that Dr. Seuss devised in the picture book, couldn't bring a similar sense of depth to the central characters or their intent.
As the Once-ler's empire grows, the trees are swiftly chopped down, and, in a musical number whose creepy weirdness borders on "Elephants on Parade"-levels of sinister surrealism, the Once-ler wonders "How Bad Can I Be?" (The shout-out to current rampant consumerism is solidifies when the Once-ler passes a poster of his own face with the words "Too Big To Fail" printed underneath. The irony of the movie being released by the Universal mega-conglomerate is not lost.) The Lorax sighs and the animals leave and at the end of the story the Once-ler bestows on Ted the last Truffula seed, much to the chagrin of the evil O'Hare (voiced by Rob Riggle, giving himself away when he unleashes a "Pow!" straight out of "Step Brothers").
And the look of the film, so startling springy at the beginning, also has a feeling of tired repetition. The film was directed by Chris Renaud (and Kyle Balda) and written by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, all of whom worked on Blue Sky Animation's Seuss-adaptation "Horton Hears a Who" from a few years ago, and the film was overseen by Audrey Geisel, Theodor's widow. At this point the commitment to upholding the "Seuss look and feel" is wearing quite thin. The Humming-Fish remind us of that annoying fish in Mike Myers' awful "Cat in the Hat" and much of the character design and production aesthetic uncomfortably bring to mind Ron Howard's equally atrocious "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." (They also owe Pixar some kind of royalty check, too – O'Hare's design looks nearly identical to Edna Mode's in "The Incredibles" and the climax is borrowed, wholesale, from "WALL-E," complete with whirligig chase to retrieve an all-important seedling.) "The Lorax" isn't nearly as grating as the two recent live-action Seuss adaptations, but the sensation of odd familiarity is still there, and it's an unpleasant one to say the least.