By Drew Taylor | The Playlist February 29, 2012 at 1:10PM
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.)
As far as an opening number, this is kind of a showstopper, showcasing a perfectly Seussian design scheme full of loopy streets and crazy vehicles and rubber-band-limbed humans. We eventually zero in on one of these humans, Ted (Zac Efron), a 12-year-old boy who has a crush on the girl across the street, named Audrey (Taylor Swift). Audrey dreams of a world where really-for-real trees actually spring up from the earth, and shows him a mural she's painted of a Truffula Tree, a long, spindly, stripy tree with a tuft at the top that looks like a mad swirl of cotton candy. It's her dream to see one of these trees in real life and so Ted takes it upon himself to find her one, encouraged by his grandmother (Betty White) to seek out a mysterious figure called the Once-ler (Ed Helms), who lives beyond the city limits.
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.
Anyway, Ted makes it out of the city (way too easily – again, this is a section that begs for tension and adversity) and over to the house of the Once-ler, which is located in a dilapidated shack in the middle of what was once a thriving forest. Now a recluse, he eventually agrees to tell Ted the story of the Lorax (played with furry aplomb by Danny DeVito) and how Thneed-ville came to be (even if, realistically, the timeline he presents is far too condensed, not that things like urban planning and generational growth are things that should be explored in a 90-minute children's film). The Once-ler, it seems, was once an optimistic inventor with an idea for the Thneed, a kind of combination sweater/hat/Shamwow. He happened upon a sleepy valley, full of Humming-Fish and Swomee-Swans and Bar-ba-loot Bears and, of course, Truffula Trees. The Once-ler realizes that the tops of the Truffula Trees could be perfect for making Thneeds, but as soon as the chops down the first tree, the Lorax appears. True to form he is "shortish and oldish and brownish and mossy," and, thanks to DeVito, speaks "with a voice that was sharpish and bossy." The Lorax says he "speaks for the trees" but later describes himself as a "guardian of the forest," which brings to mind the calming mysticism of a Miyazaki movie (it never quite materializes like that, though).
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").
"The Lorax" is outrageously faithful to the source material, with much of the central part of the movie a child listening to a crazy old man tell a story (just like in the book). It grinds the narrative momentum down to a screeching halt and makes the bookends of the movie, with the kid and the girl and the seed, seem dull and uninteresting, robbed of the colorful animal characters of the forest (particularly the Humming-Fish, which owe a certain debt to the Minions in "Despicable Me") and much of the sharp-witted social commentary. By comparison, the wraparound storyline seems rudderless and without much drama.
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.
There isn't anything offensively bad about "The Lorax," it's just that there are long stretches of the movie where nothing even remotely interesting (let alone funny) happens. In the flashback sequences you can feel the filmmakers straining to put more emphasis and action there, since the bookends are so hopelessly inert, and in the end nothing is pulled off all that convincingly. It's lovely to have a movie preach environmentalism with such force (if it's one thing that should be preached, it's that), it would just be more lovely if the movie were more compelling. "The Lorax" is decent and charming, it's very true indeed. It's got bears that look like Ewoks and songs and something called a Thneed. But you can't help but wish that the filmmakers too some liberties, too. It's good to be respectful, but it can also make you blue. [B-]