With The Lorax, the entertainment industry and the federal government have joined forces to produce a candy-colored dollop of castor-oil. This woeful would-be message movie is about as jaw-dropping as a notable previous Potomac/Pacific joint effort — the pro-Stalin film Mission to Moscow ordered up by Franklin Roosevelt in 1943.
Dr. Seuss’ Lorax is a furry orange forest gnome who carries an overt anti-industry, anti-capitalist, pro-environmentalism theme, and in an effort to look as though they practice what they preach the backers of the film have lined up deals with supposedly green and eco-friendly outfits such as the detergent maker Seventh Generation, which is hawking a Lorax-branded bottle made of recycled paper. (Question: did anyone bother to measure the relative carbon emissions of making a plastic bottle versus making one out of paper, or is the overall feeling of groovy virtue all that matters?)
Another notable Lorax partner is the Environmental Protection Agency, which you might think (or fear) would have bigger things on its mind than promoting a big-screen cartoon, but the combination of Hollywood glamour (Zac Efron and Taylor Swift are in the cast) and the opportunity to push early propaganda on little minds proved irresistible to the EPA, which is using the Lorax brand to hype those supposedly energy-efficient appliances that never quite seem to deliver on their promises. (Click image at left to read.)
Unsurprisingly, given the rigid earnestness behind it, The Lorax isn’t much fun to watch. Every time you think it’s starting to get a little heavy-handed, it gets heavier still. The Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito) features in both ascension and resurrection scenes, there is a hymn to greed called “How Bad Can I Be?” that would have embarrassed Bernie Madoff, and the bad guy, O’Hare (Rob Riggle), who wears a severely geometric ‘do suggesting the epic hairstyling errors of Moe Howard, Ringo Starr and Rooney Mara, is a loathsome little creep who has made a fortune selling bottled air.
The art department never got the memo from the Heavy Themes folks, though, and they created a delightfully Seussian candy-colored playland that hardly says “hellhole.” The skies are azure and the streets are clean, giving the lie to the opening song about how smoggy and rubbishy everything is.
More likely to repel little Jake and Emma is the forest critter and alleged hero the Lorax. Imagine the crankiness of your average Scotsman with the mustache of David Crosby.
The Lorax famously “speaks for the trees” but sounds much like a creepy Earth Science teacher who can’t stop talking about that time he met Joan Baez at a No Nukes rally. Briefly I considered reporting the little freak to the police, after he sneaks into bed with the adolescent Once-ler (Ed Helms), an initially well-meaning kid out to make a buck who falls prey to his worst instincts and cuts down all the trees to harvest a substance used in making a must-have clothing item called a “thneed.”
The Lorax (who is only the fourth most prominent character, not that I wanted more of him) fails to convince the Once-ler to be gentle on the land and the woodland creatures who live there. But he’s such a huffy little troll that it’s difficult to picture anyone taking advice from him, even before he slips himself between the sheets with a little boy. Nor is DeVito’s the voice of wisdom; the man sounds like a cabdriver in a 1940s movie, or maybe Ratso Rizzo’s less successful brother, not a sage.
The Lorax’s tale, which is told in flashback, is the side order of raw cauliflower to the main dish of boiled rutabaga. In today’s all-artificial Thneedville, 12-year-old Ted (Zac Efron) listens to the tales of the now-aged Once-ler and tries to find a single surviving tree to impress a girl, Audrey (Taylor Swift). When, after an hour or so of screen time, we finally get to the point, it’s this: Ted is going to try to plant a seed. And the villain, instead of being soundly defeated, will merely trickle away. Meanwhile every 15 minutes there’s a message-heavy pop tune that sounds like something your Earth Science teacher cooked up over the weekend with his cardigan-and-sandals band, the Symbiotics.
A few busy action scenes may entertain the kids, and the movie does have visual dazzle, but mostly it’s just dismal satire aimed at dead targets. The environment is such an object of veneration today that kids aren’t even going to get the point of the Lorax any more than they’re going to get a joke about the dance craze the Hustle (circa 1976).
A more up-to-date, and daring, movie might have satirized the artificial resource-gobblers (like Apple products) people love today, and made Thneedville’s fondness for bottled air into a more vigorous poke at the eco-unfriendliness of bottled water. But then again, people drink bottled water because they suspect tap water isn’t pure and natural enough, so that message doesn’t work either.
The Lorax turns pole-ax with the ascension and second coming of the wee fella, suggesting that this noble being was sent to rescue us but temporarily died for our polystyrene. That you can’t make a movie about the Christian deity without being “controversial,” yet can readily depict a chubby orange forest gnome as an eco-savior, says much about our age. When you’ve stopped believing in God, you don’t believe in nothing, you’ll believe in anything.