A small section of the public have already lined up to slam The Lorax, adapted from the slim Dr. Seuss morality tale of the same name, and released in UK cinemas this weekend, for being some sort of anti-capitalist brainwashing tool. Those people would be fairly smug should any of them wonder into a screening, as they’re quite right, as were those who kicked up a fuss back when the book emerged, with its intentions to teach children about the environment. A good message does not a great movie make, however, and it’s a shame the potentially charming animation couldn’t retain some of Seuss’ inherent magic.
This loss of the source material’s delights is something that’s plagued move adaptations of his work for some time, but don’t get me wrong, The Lorax is a damn sight better than The Cat in the Hat or The Grinch. It isn’t as good as Horton Hears a Who! however, and it’s starting to seem like translating silly rhymes and mad hysteria from page to screen is harder than it looks. Here, young Ted (Zac Efron) plans to go looking for a real tree – he lives in a world where nature has been used up and forgotten – and present it to object of affection, Audrey (Taylor Swift), as a birthday gift.
But the weird bit comes when he visits the mysterious Once-ler (Ed Helms) on recommendation from his Gran (Betty White), and discovers what actually happened to the tress all those years ago. The preaching begins here, as the detailed story takes up most of the rest of the film. It turns out that, seeking to make something of himself as a young man, The Once-ler started a business making thneeds (scarves) and, as demand soared, eradicated the town’s natural resources forever. Now residents are ignorant and unaware of what they’re missing, making do with remote control plants (“disco function!”) and broccoli-shaped jelly for dinner.
It may surprise some to discover the film to be a musical, and the songs aren’t bad, even if they’re disappointingly forgettable. In terms of the linguistic style most will go in expecting (or looking forward to), the Seuss-esque lines from the book but, unfortunately, they are only sporadically included, and come across as obligated inclusions rather than anything the filmmakers wanted desperately to encompass. It’s not a disastrous move, as kids unfamiliar with the author’s work won’t even notice, but it removes some much needed allure from the film.
Trying to teach kids something new while in front of the screen isn’t really new, but has been done far better in the superior environmental fable WALL:E, and it’s a case of Pixar winning the war once again. The filmmakers, the same team as were behind last year’s Despicable Me, have chosen to layer the central message with bombastic set-pieces, hyped-up musical numbers and an un-engaging love story, all of which have been created outside of Dr Seuss’ source material. I’m not championing a faithful-at-the-expense-of-quality approach, but the guy really knew his stuff, and was strict about quality control.
Now, his works are almost invariably awful, so The Lorax at least surpasses most previous efforts in terms of entertainment value and general competency. The choice to present ‘nature’ as candyfloss-shaped skyscrapers pays off in terms of visual style, too, as it’s these random bursts of strangeness that characterise all the best modern animation, Seuss or not. It’s a busy and well-thought out film, but a 50/50 split between what works and what doesn’t won’t be enough to keep anyone engaged, especially not the kiddies.