Hollywood hammers away at Dr. Seuss’ charm
During his life, author Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known to readers as Dr. Seuss, zealously guarded the misappropriation of his works. However, since his death in 1991, his second wife and surviving widow, Audrey Geisel, authorized adaptations of four Seuss books into feature-length films – with varying results.
Stretching a book that provides a 20-minute dramatic read (free to watch on YouTube) into an 86-minute movie, required the invention of characters and new plot elements. Unlike “Horton Hears a Who,” an adaptation carefully adhering to the Seuss book, “The Lorax” film favors banal dialog, dispensing with Seuss’ endearing rhymes.
The Seussian style of animation remains intact, but his curving bridges and off-kilter structures lose some charm to the plasticine world of 3D CGI.
The story’s hero is a young boy named Ted (voiced by Zac Efron). The lad is all that stands between the last truffula tree seed and Thneedville’s greedy mayor, Mr. O’Hare (voice of Rob Riggle), who wants its residents to purchase his manufactured air. While Ted rides atop a motorized unicycle, the diminutive, vaguely Asian Mr. O’Hare is chauffeured about in an outsized limo, and is constantly guarded by two big goons.
His malevolent presence goes largely unquestioned and unnoticed by Thneedville’s citizens who literally buy into his message of progress, happily lighting their remote-controlled, plastic trees, and dining on bright-colored gelatinous shapes mimicking those of real food.
Ted is named after Seuss, and is motivated to win the affections of Audrey, a high school babe named for Seuss’ second wife and entoned by Taylor Swift. Audrey is fixated on the truffula tree, painting them on the back of her house. She dreams of seeing the real thing and proclaims she will marry the man who can find one for her.
Granny Norma, winsomely voiced by Betty White, sympathizes with Ted’s pursuit of Audrey, and provides his one hope of procuring a truffula tree – because she remembers the Once-ler (voice of Ed Helms) – a reclusive being living outside Thneedville’s impossibly high walls. Reaching the Once-ler requires Ted’s perseverance and bravery as he navigates an unseemly factory filled with rivers of sludge, all while escaping O’Hare’s goons.
After riding his unicycle over deteriorating bridges and walls, he at last comes to a decimated gray landscape, home of the Once-ler.
As in the book, the film wraps another story within Ted’s story – expanding this tale but partially redeeming the film by closely adhering to its original framework. In flashback, we learn that the Once-ler’s life is filled with regret because he chopped down every last truffula tree for its soft tufts, and spoiled a lush paradise. If only he’d paid attention to the magical Lorax, an orange, mustachioed being who “speaks for the trees.”
By far the most satisfying interlude, this middle passage is fleshed out with humming/singing goldfish, large yellow birds, and teddy bear-like creatures, all displaced by the Once-ler’s unbridled greed. Precisely how the Once-ler’s actions have resulted in the plastic town of Thneedville, or the rise of its impish mayor, are not clear, but thanks to his love for Audrey, Ted is just the fellow to set things right.
The action seesaws between that which honors Seuss’ work, and that which ratchets up the threat level from code yellow to fire engine red. Seuss’ ecological message, gently conveyed by his book, is hammered home via the invented O’Hare, a villain who will stop at nothing to fill his coffers.
Kids will be entertained here at the same frenetic pace set by recent films, despite several inserted songs inferior to those of even lesser Disney films.
This adaptation swallowed “The Lorax” and spat out “The Lorax Goes Hollywood,” in what has become the unnatural progression of “Thing One and Thing Two.”