(by Dustin Putman
As far as computer-animated adaptations of Dr. Seuss classics go, "The Lorax" is an altogether more confident rendering than 2008's "Horton Hears a Who!" Perhaps its moralistic themes are simply expansive enough to better lend themselves to feature length, or maybe director Chris Renaud (2010's "Despicable Me") and screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (2011's "Hop") are just working on a higher level. Whatever the case, while "Horton Hears a Who!" meant well, looked stunning, and had a handful of heartwarming moments, it also stretched its miniscule premise so thin that half of the running time felt like filler. In "The Lorax," the late Dr. Theodor S. Geisel's forward-thinking ideas are paid loving respect as the story is developed beyond what the children's author probably at first imagined. Nevertheless, the new material and characters feel wholly organic, all of it faithful to his sensibilities and helping to give further weight to the part-cheerful, part-toe-tapping, part-serious-minded proceedings. Taking a cue from the best that Pixar has to offer, this is very much the kind of all-encompassing family film that children and adults will be taken with in equal measure. Article continues below
In the bright and shiny town of Thneedville, just about everything but the people and food are artificial and most of the residents seem to like it that way, turning a blind eye to the dark, gloomy wasteland that exists beyond their metal-barrier borders. It is here that spunky 12-year-old Ted (voiced by Zac Efron) has an innocent schoolboy crush on lovely, slightly older neighbor Audrey (Taylor Swift), and when she remarks that she would "totally marry" the person who found her an honest to goodness real tree, he makes it his mission to get one. Urged by his Grammy Norma (Betty White) to seek out the old hermit known as the Once-ler (Ed Helms), who lives just outside the city's borders, Ted's venture into the overcast smog becomes an eye-opening experience as to why no trees or, really, plants of any kind exist. The desolated outcast's tale is a sad one, his drive for success as a young man leading him to make thneeds ("The Thing Everyone Needs!") out of trees. It's a corporate boon that quickly turns into a major environmental hazard, the Once-ler ignoring the warnings of the mystical "guardian of the forest" The Lorax (Danny DeVito), polluting the home of all the woodland creatures, and leaving not a single Truffula tree standing. As Ted is about to discover, however, it takes only the caring and good deeds of a single person to turn things around and make a difference in the world.
"The Lorax" is a literal tree-hugger of a film that will have cynics rolling their eyes, but so what? Let them roll. Is it really so bad to send out the message that we should respect the place where we all live? Taking a cue directly from its author, "The Lorax" is gentle and sincere in its plea for practicing a "green" life. There is no unctuous preachiness, and what education there is to be had is carried out with good will, earnestness, and the entertainment of simply a terrifically imaginative story. Spanning a fantasy vision of the present with flashbacks of the past, the film is a dazzling sight, rich with a Skittles-like color scheme that paints Thneedville as a falsely pretty prison that mimics what the world once was when authentic trees roamed the valley and animals harmoniously existed in their natural wild habitat. Director Chris Renaud ultimately sees this as a tragedy, but of course the full weight of the Once-ler's actions and society's greed reveal themselves gradually. Not to make things seem like too much of a downer, Renaud brings an infectious sense of humor to the narrative (I love how the electronic trees have four settings: summer, autumn, winter and disco), while John Powell and Cinco Paul have written a handful of bouncy and inspired original songs.
Ted's brave quest to find a tree intersects with the unclean dealings of current corporate giant O'Hare (Rob Riggle), who wants to keep a lid on the many ways he's selling the Thneedville population short while preparing the launch of his new product: bottled air. Once out of O'Hare's parameters—cameras are set up around the town, eavesdropping on his moves—Ted zips off to the Once-ler's ramshackle abode to get the full story on the missing trees. The extended trips into the past are the heart of the picture, the young Once-ler's sunny disposition turning to an opportunistic one as he and his thneeds become the talk of the town. There is a price to pay, though, and the Lorax, coming down from the sky like a heaven-sent Greenpeace rodent, makes it his mission to get the young man to see reason. Danny DeVito (2010's "When in Rome") perfectly voices the tireless title character with a kindness offset by an insect-like determination to bug the Once-ler into submission. For comic relief are the barbaloots, miniature-sized bears who befriend the Once-ler until they see that he cares more about profit than their lives. The on-going gags at the expense of the most hefty of the bears are possibly the movie's biggest miscalculation, making an exaggerated mockery out of a well-meaning and adorable creature. With bullying appearing so prevalently in the news these days, children should not be going to the theater and seeing that it's okay to laugh at the overweight.
With the Once-ler's factory built and churning away like a well-oiled machine, something's gotta finally give, and it does—big time—when the last tree is cut, buyers lose interest in thneeds, and all that is left to show for his business is a bulky, rusted old building and a landscape of gray smog and hopelessness as far as the eye can see. When Thneedville is built, people gradually forget about the desperation of the outside world when presented with new surroundings as colorfully glossy as they are woefully synthetic. Hope, however, prevails. Ted, inspired by Audrey's dreams for a better, realer place to live, the Once-ler's grim downfall of "Citizen Kane" proportions, and the Lorax's messages of empowerment and respect, hopes to change all that's gone wrong in Thneedville. "The Lorax" is a fun, touching delight, dripping with aesthetic wonder and the boundless reaches where only animated films can go. Dr. Seuss would be proud of this one.