More than 40 years ago Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, addressed the plight of our world in the face of deforestation and increasing pollution in his ground-breaking children's book The Lorax.
It's a bleak story -- by far his darkest -- that doesn't offer happy endings or easy solutions, and holds us accountable for the state of our planet's decline.
Given our current global crisis in the face of climate change, filmmakers Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda clearly felt a refresher message is needed with their new animated version of the cautionary tale, Dr. Seuss' The Lorax.
If you've read The Lorax recently or remember it well from your childhood, you'll recall its grim prescient message of big industry run amok: An entrepreneur named Once-ler invents the Thneed from a Truffula Tree, builds a huge factory to keep up with the demand, and ultimately destroys a forest and pollutes the sky. Trying to prevent this dour outcome is the Lorax, a small, fuzzy creature with a yellow Mark Twain moustache who speaks for the trees.
Ed Helms provides the voice of the Once-ler, the once well-meaning inventor-turned greedy business owner, and Danny DeVito gives life to the Lorax, who is considerably feistier and crabbier than in the book.
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But to adequately expand a nearly 60-page book to a 94-minute movie, some padding was necessary, including new characters and a few musical numbers.
The major addition is teenaged Ted, voiced by Zac Efron, the film's heroic main character. Ted lives with his mom (voice of Jenny Slate) and Grammy Norma (voice of Betty White) in a town made almost entirely of plastic, including the trees. The girl of his dreams, Audrey (voice of singer Taylor Swift), inspires him to find a real Truffula Tree. To do that, he must venture outside town walls, a no-no, and locate the Once-ler, now a sad aging hermit living with regrets for what he did to the environment. The Once-ler shares his story with Ted in the hopes that it will inspire him and others in the town to make the necessary changes to bring back the trees, the animals, and the Lorax.
The villain is the diminutive corporate owner Mr. O'Hare (voice of Rob Riggle), who has made a fortune selling bottled air for the residents of the smoggy town. O'Hare doesn't want others to know about the desolate, polluted world outside the town's walls, and his continuing part in exacerbating the problem. O'Hare, another invention of the film's script, is likely to further irk those who took issue with the greedy oil baron caricature in The Muppets, and he's less funny than that character as well.
Screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, who teamed up to write 2010's hit Despicable Me, and for another Dr. Seuss feature, 2008's Horton Hears a Who!, rely on old-fashioned puppy love as the catalyst for global reform. It's a palatable method to deliver an important message to younger audiences. Yet, Dr. Seuss' The Lorax lacks the punch of consistent laughs to keep these same young minds with limited attention spans engaged throughout the film. There are stretches in the middle of the movie, mostly involving Ted, that creak along.
The musical numbers range from good to average, much like the film's visuals. Dr. Seuss' The Lorax is colorful and rich, as with its source material, but not so striking that the computer animation breaks new ground. The 3-D effects, save a few fleeting first-person sequences, isn't noteworthy either.
What is memorable, though, is the film's heart and its ability to coax emotions. The Lorax's departure from the barren land, much like in the book, is a lump-in-the-throat moment. Meanwhile, Dr. Seuss' enduring message of "unless" we do something to change our circumstances resonates as much today as it did more than four decades ago.
Unfortunately, we still needed to hear it.
DR. SEUSS' THE LORAX
Directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda. Screenplay by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, based on the book by Dr. Seuss. A Universal release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG for brief mild language. Running time: 94 minutes.
Critic's rating: * * *
The Lorax (voice) ........... Danny DeVito
Ted (voice) ...........Zac Efron
The Once-ler (voice) ..........Ed Helms
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.