Producer Chris Meledandri knows all too well the meaning of "Rango's" Oscar victory last Sunday: You can't play it safe.
And so far he's resisted the temptation with his impressive track record: First launching Blue Sky's blockbuster "Ice Age" franchise when he was president of Fox Animation and then having lightning strike twice with "Despicable Me" two years ago when he went indie with his Illumination Entertainment. And he had the best of both worlds by aligning himself with Universal and making the animated feature in France at Mac Guff with the benefit of great tax breaks.
Now Meledandri has enticed Universal into buying Mac Guff for Illumination: transforming it into the Blue Sky model, with "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" opening today and "Despicable Me 2" coming July 3, 2013. In fact, there's a fun little teaser trailer online this week with the lovable Minions singing a wacky version of The Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann."
But Meledandri had his work cut out for him with "The Lorax." Even more than his previous "Horton Hears a Who!" Dr. Seuss experience at Fox/Blue Sky, "The Lorax" is a tricky balance between retro and relevance. Despite the presence of its cotton candy-looking Truffula Valley, it's the darkest and most personal children's book by Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), who would've been 108 today. He conceived it as a love story to his wife, Audrey (who serves as exec producer on "The Lorax"), as a celebration of nature and the need for the environmental protection of forests. The 1971 book about the crafty and sage-like Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito), who speaks for the trees and against unfettered greed, remains popular and influential. Why, there's even a copy of "The Lorax" in a deleted scene about a school house that's obliterated in "Avatar." But it's not easy weaving such an environmental message into a family-friendly animated entertainment.
"'The Lorax' has its challenges because as a film we're asking audiences to grapple with issues that have real weight to them and to find the expression of a movie that can both do justice to [Geisel's] intent as well as realize the storytelling that is highly entertaining and engaging," Meledandri suggests. "But Geisel was so prescient. Even though he was writing in the '70s, there's almost a timeless quality in the way he perceives society and the individual that allows for both adherence to the spirit of what he's saying and to be relevant in a contemporary world."
Indeed, like "Horton," "The Lorax" runs the risk of alienating Seuss purists that don't like messing with Geisel in CG or 3-D. Yet Meledandri insists that "The Lorax" is true to the design of Geisel's work even though it dynamically expands the animated experience with a comfy world of fur. Geisel moved off his normal color palette in this book and used color to convey a sense of real despair when it comes to a world that has been obliterated. It was also important that the animators embrace that gray color palette.
But it all comes down to the heroic presence of the Lorax himself, according to Meledandri. "He crafted the Lorax as a wonderfully nuanced character that is very true down to poses in the book," he adds. "What Geisel created was a character who avoids being overly precious in his role as protector of the trees," Meledandri continues. "The Lorax has a righteous role but delivers his message with a subversive quality. That's what appealed most to me. I like characters that could potentially be seen as off putting but you love them for having those qualities."
It's that balance between the familiar and the subversive that propels all of Meledandri's films. Does he believe that we are entering a danger zone of complacency in animation? He doesn't hesitate in becoming his own Lorax: "The CG era of animation has been the beneficiary of an extremely high-level of artistry over the past 15 years, which has resulted, looking back, in a vibrancy that many have marveled at. But I think we're at a place now where this era has reached a maturation point and the danger that we face as an industry is retreating from the full artistic spirit. And if we fall into a sense of sameness, fooling ourselves into thinking that represents safety, then the industry will run the risk of coming off the rails. Now is the time to hold true to that vibrancy."
So what does that say about his upcoming "Despicable Me 2," in which Al Pacino voices the latest baddie? "The challenge there is to honor what audiences really responded to in the film, but to then shove it in new directions. The hook was that we turned a villain, Gru [voiced by Steve Carell], into a loving father. The nastiness is still his trademark. He still like all of us has quite a distance to travel before he has finished his emotional growth."