In 2009, after a very lengthy and painful stay in development hell, Spike Jonze finally released Where the Wild Things Are. And it was fucking awesome. Yes, there was inevitably a ton of padding in the process of adaptation, but all of the added story beats revolved around a single word: “Wild.” It was all about building forts, throwing snowballs, and lashing out in response to emotional pain. In other words, the movie elegantly and honestly portrayed the physical, energetic, creative, and dangerous aspects of youth with very little condescension or sugar-coating. In this way — to paraphrase author Maurice Sendak himself — the movie enriched and enhanced its source material while taking nothing away. To this day, I maintain that the movie is a criminally underrated masterpiece of family cinema.
I mention this movie because it’s one of those rare times — indeed, it may well be the only time — when a short children’s book was adapted to feature-length with such amazing results.
There was The Polar Express, which had the great misfortune of being made while mo-cap technology was still relatively experimental. There was How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which padded out its story with a ton of crass humor and endless mugging from Jim Carrey. Then there was The Cat in the Hat, a movie so godawful that it led Audrey Geisel to impose a moratorium on all live-action adaptations of her late husband’s work. I still haven’t seen Horton Hears a Who!, but I’m not getting a lot of optimism from the gimmicky voice cast crammed with whatever celebrities were within reach at the time.
With all of that said, I really was rooting for The Lorax. Not only is the source material a classic ecological parable that’s just as timely as it ever was, but casting Danny DeVito in the title role sounded perfect. But at the same time, I knew in my heart of hearts that this movie was going to be a disappointment. And it was.
Of course, that’s not to say the movie is all bad. When the first Truffula tree is chopped down, the Lorax and his animal friends give it a brief funeral that’s moving without being overly melodramatic. When the last tree is chopped down, it’s heartbreaking. All throughout the movie, the Lorax and the Once-ler (here played by Ed Helms) get some wonderful scenes together. When the movie really digs down and works for those poignant moments, it works beautifully. Such a pity, then, that we have to go through the rest of the film to get to those moments. But I’ll get back to that in a minute.
I’m glad to say that Danny DeVito exceeded my expectations in this film. The Lorax is easily the strongest part of this movie, which makes it all the sadder that he’s barely in it. Yes, the Lorax gets sidelined in his own movie. In theory, this is actually okay, since the Lorax wasn’t really the focus of the source material. That honor went to the Once-ler, who wasn’t really a monster so much as he was a sort of tragic hero. As destructive, greedy, and short-sighted as he was, it’s important to remember that the Once-ler never really meant any harm with his actions. He was only trying to improve the lives of his customers through his inventions, using all manner of mental gymnastics to justify his actions and to brush aside the Lorax’s warnings. And of course, it must be remembered that after it was too late, the Once-ler shows a great deal of remorse for his lack of foresight.
The story works as well as it does precisely because the Once-ler is such a nuanced and relateable character. It’s impossible to blame him for his actions, because really, we’d only be blaming ourselves.
But he’s not the focus of the movie, either.
No, the main character of the movie is Ted, played by Zac Efron. What, you don’t remember Ted from the book? Well, do you remember that nameless boy? The audience surrogate who goes to the Once-ler and pays to hear his story? Yeah, that’s Ted. Get your waders and pruning shears, folks, because we’re going into the movie’s padding.
In the movie, Ted is a resident of Thneedville, a city completely devoid of nature. No flowers, no insects, and not a single patch of dirt to be found anywhere. Naturally, this complete lack of trees means that there’s nothing to convert smog into breathable air. That’s done by Aloysius O’Hare (Rob Riggle), a pint-sized tyrant who came to be the town’s richest man and de facto leader by selling fresh air to the residents of Thneedville.
Getting back to Ted, he’s a young man with a huge crush on Audrey, a slightly older girl played by Taylor Swift. Ted will do anything to get her affections, so when she expresses some random desire to see an actual living tree, Ted seeks out the Once-ler in search of one. But of course, O’Hare’s business is threatened by anything that will turn smog into air for free, so he works to stop trees from growing by any means necessary.
Let’s break this down one character at a time.
We’ll begin with Ted. At first, his interest in the environment is purely a means to an end. He wants to find a tree so that he can kiss a girl, that’s it. So his development arc is that he starts as a character interested in trees for purely selfish reasons, and he ends as a character who loves trees for purely altruistic reasons. Thus, our audience surrogate is reduced to a tired and boring two-dimensional character whose development is far and away less interesting than that of the Once-ler.
As for Audrey, she’s there for the sole purpose of getting Ted on the track to the Once-ler. From that point, Ted’s search for a tree becomes less of a means to an end and more of an end in itself, all with absolutely no intervention from the love interest. Thus, Audrey is totally and completely worthless after her first scene.
O’Hare… *sigh* Where do I start? I feel like this one character perfectly encapsulates everything wrong with the movie. Remember everything I said before about how the Once-ler was a nuanced character with the best intentions who didn’t know the damage he was causing? Yeah, O’Hare is the opposite of all that. He’s a transparent villain who knows exactly how much damage is being caused, and he’s determined to keep everyone ignorant about it so he can make more money. This is a villain who speaks out against trees, for Grinch’s sake. He’s a boring, annoying, one-dimensional character who oversimplifies the corporate side of the environmental issue to a cartoonishly evil degree. Basically, his very presence stands entirely counter to everything that made the Once-ler in particular and the story in general so interesting.
Though to be fair, it’s not like the Once-ler’s story is devoid of padding. There’s a questionable scene in which the Lorax sends a sleeping Once-ler floating down a river, and the Once-ler’s relatives prove to be an especially bad influence as they bully him into corporate excess. Still, the latter scene has at least some basis in the source text, and the former scene didn’t really do that much harm, all told. If the entire movie had been padded out with more of this, it might have been okay. But that still doesn’t fix the Once-ler completely.
I can certainly see what the filmmakers were trying to do with the Once-ler. The nuance, the short-sightedness, and the obsessive drive to make the world a better place are all there and clearly obvious. Unfortunately, the character is terribly written, with dialogue and jokes that just don’t work at all. The character works splendidly when he’s being treated as the tragic hero I described earlier, but every attempt to make him a humorous character falls totally flat. Also, whoever chose to give him a guitar should have been fired ages ago.
Sweet merciful Geisel in heaven, the musical numbers in this movie suck. “How Bad Can I Be?” is probably the worst offender, as those three minutes of “music” are used to expedite the Once-ler’s expanding business and his ethical justifications for ruining the environment around him. Or, as it’s known in the source text, the entire friggin’ book. There’s also “Thneedville,” the opening number which tells us everything that we need to know about the artificial city, and “Let it Grow,” the sappy closing number. All of these songs are annoying, unnecessary, and horribly written. I won’t even get started on the humming-fish, who actually sing in an ear-splittingly shrill kind of noise. They are responsible for briefly singing the “Mission: Impossible” theme and Chopin’s “Funeral March.” Yes, I’m being totally serious.
Really, the humming-fish are just a symptom of the larger problem that this movie has. It’s the same problem that affects absolutely every character in this film, though the Lorax himself is admittedly a lesser case: This movie is nowhere near as humorous as it thinks it is. The filmmakers keep trying way too hard to be funny and charming, with the result being that every attempt comes off as forced and annoying. And a huge part of that is in the voice cast.
Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, Betty White, and Jenny Slate didn’t remotely sound like their characters. They sounded like they were reading their lines in a recording booth to collect a paycheck. Rob Riggle only made O’Hare an even more atrocious character, and Ed Helms’ voice does the Once-ler absolutely no favors.
Still, I will give the movie props for this much: The visuals. The animation is great, the lighting is effective, and the designs are all appropriately Seussian. Aside from a few reused character models in the larger group shots, the movie looked wonderful. Though in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I didn’t see the film in 3D. That’s just as well, partly because this godawful teaser was painful enough in 2D. But mostly, I got the impression that any “3D moments” would have been far more frustrating than entertaining, despite whatever the filmmakers may have thought. That seems to be a recurring pattern with this movie, in case you hadn’t noticed.
The Lorax certainly isn’t the worst Dr. Seuss adaptation, though that’s very faint praise indeed. Though the Lorax himself is presented very well, his presence is marginalized in favor of wretched musical numbers and worthless characters. The moments of drama work, but the film utterly fails its many attempts at charm and humor. O’Hare alone is a deal-breaker, since the inclusion of such a one-dimensional villain goes entirely counter to the source text. It’s clear that a lot of effort went into the visuals, but there was apparently none left for the voice cast, the script, or the direction. There are some good ideas and scenes, but they’re all buried under so much mediocre execution of so many bad ideas.
Bottom line: If you want a visually dazzling ecological fable that appeals to kids of all ages, spare yourself the 3D premium and go see The Secret World of Arrietty instead.