...shining light on the media, one review at a time
For most of us, the mention of Dr. Seuss conjures up memories of happy childhood days—of colorful, imaginary worlds and mesmerizing rhymes that dropped off parents’ lips during story time. When a movie is made of a Dr. Seuss story, it sometimes doesn’t manage to survive the transformation to a contemporary film without losing much of its innocence and meaningful simplicity in the modernizing process.
Not so with Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, which brings to life one of Dr. Seuss’ most overtly moralizing books without ignoring a bit of its message. The Lorax manages to modernize the look and elements of the story while making its point not only clear, but accessible and highly relevant to modern audiences. Showing the dangers of greed and selfishness, as well as the power of one person’s caring and responsible action, there are plenty of lessons for kids and their parents in this tale.
The film slips in a few areas, but thanks to its overall moral and thematic integrity, The Lorax is a movie that will entertain and instruct the whole family in Dr. Seuss style.
Twelve-year-old Ted has one goal in life—to impress Audrey, the beautiful high school girl who lives nearby. When he isn’t concocting ways to “accidentally” see her, he dreams of doing something that will earn her affection and a kiss.
Audrey seems oblivious to Ted’s crush, though she’s friendly and shares her interests with him. Her greatest passion and desire, Ted discovers, is to see a real tree. Audrey and Ted have never seen one of the actual, living plants, because they’ve grown up in Thneedville, a town in which all things, even plants, are made of plastic.
Because of the pollution caused by manufacturing all that plastic and the destruction of the trees that led to the creation of Thneedville, there’s no breathable air naturally in the town. No problem—Mr. O’Hare, a visionary hustler in a suit, took care of any worries by “manufacturing” bottled air.
Believing in O’Hare Air’s caring persona, the people of Thneedville demonstrate their trust by gullibly forking over money for the air in their homes and town. Meanwhile, the citizens contentedly purchase remote-controlled trees that change colors, pop-up balloon yard plants, and the like, buying into the latest fads in fake plant technology and dismissing any thought of wanting a dirty, troublesome, real tree around.
But when Audrey hears about actual trees, that they were beautiful and soft, she falls in love with the real thing, just as Ted continues to fall for her. Seeing his chance to impress Audrey, Ted immediately goes about fulfilling Audrey’s wish. Somehow, he’ll find her a tree.
After a little research through his feisty Grammy Norma, Ted learns that he must go outside the town walls and find The Once-ler, who is the only person who would know where or how to find a tree. Ted, like many people in Thneedville, has never left the city, but with the prospect of winning Audrey’s heart, he has no hesitation in venturing out.
A mysterious hermit, The Once-ler is not what Ted expected. The peculiar man does, however, seem to know about trees, so Ted sticks around to hear a true story about an idyllic land of natural beauty, a creature called The Lorax, and the reason why there are no more trees. [MILD SPOILER WARNING] But the Once-ler isn’t going to make things easy for Ted, and he requires that Ted return for several more days to hear the rest of the tale before he may or may not find out where a tree might be.
[MILD SPOILER WARNING] Listening to the story turns out to be a tall order, as O’Hare spies Ted leaving the city and gets suspicious. Interest in real, oxygen-producing trees is not a positive thing from O’Hare’s point of view, and he tries to stop Ted from any more country excursions.
But for Ted, the search for a tree is no longer just about impressing a girl, it’s about undoing a terrible wrong and creating a better future. Unless Ted and others care enough to act, their world will not get better.
If any of Dr. Seuss’ purpose in his original story were preserved in a modern kids’ flick, one would expect it to be the environmental one. No surprise, The Lorax enthusiastically embraces the theme of protecting nature, layering it so thickly throughout the film that it could threaten to smother the story in a “tree-hugging” sap. But the filmmakers are wise enough to make a syrup instead, sometimes taking the nature-loving elements to an extreme for tongue-in-cheek humor, while giving other character-building messages the final say.
Conservation is an important lesson for people to learn, and this story is a great introduction to the subject for kids and a sound reminder to parents. At the same time, the message about the value of nature only has significance if it’s tied to the need for responsibility, compassion, and selflessness. The Lorax directs viewers correctly to this source of the problem and solution.
In the process, The Lorax challenges several widely-believed ideologies that shape modern society, particularly in America. Even the American Dream takes a hit as the film shows that there can be terrible consequences to the pursuit of personal happiness without thought to, or at the expense of, others. [SPOILER WARNING] The Lorax himself makes the fruitlessness of such an effort clear when he pointedly asks The Once-ler, “Happy yet? Fill that hole deep inside you yet?” The implied rhetorical answer is that, no matter how much financial success The Once-ler achieves, he will never fill that “hole.” An unusual point for a Hollywood picture to make.
The idea that money and business tycoons control the world is also chopped down, but most surprising of all is the movie’s jab at—are you ready for this?—Darwinian Evolution. In one of the film’s several musical numbers, The Once-ler sings about “the survival of the fittest.” Though he calls it “a principle of nature,” the song and the rest of the story strongly condemns the beating down of others in order to achieve success—clearly showing that “the survival of the fittest” is neither good nor right. Such an argument naturally calls into question the whole concept of Evolution, as “survival of the fittest” is presented as behavior that people can choose to follow or go against, rather than as something “natural” that must be done and is instinctively adhered to for species survival.
Along with the promising messages, the production quality is high. While not the cleverest or funniest of children’s animated movies, The Lorax is still entertaining and amusing with colorful, impressive animation. The actors voicing the characters also do a solid job, from the famous names of Danny DeVito and Betty White, to the newbies like Taylor Swift and Zac Efron, who shows as Ted that he’s no joke as a voice actor.
Yet there are a few weeds amid the healthy plants in this story. Almost all the characters engage in minor name-calling, while there’s also a heavy dose of slapstick that is intended to be comedic. Bathroom humor is avoided for most of the film, except in one rather odd moment, where a bird laying an egg is treated as something crude. Despite being rated PG for “mild language,” there’s only one detectable use of “darn” and an unfinished lead-in of “what the—.”
The Lorax character as “guardian of the forest” tends to be somewhat mystical and does pronounce a curse at one point. He’s mostly harmless, however, as he’s treated comically and, when serious, takes the role of wise counselor, rather than spiritual figure.
Of bigger concern than The Lorax are some of the behavioral patterns that characters, including the story’s “hero,” practice. Along with the already-mentioned name-calling, Ted and other characters lie without ever apologizing or experiencing direct consequences for the falsehoods. Even Grammy frequently tells little “white lies” to trick her daughter into leaving the room so she can talk to Ted in private.
As obvious in this relationship, the portrayal of families in The Lorax leaves much to be desired. Ted doesn’t seem to have any present father, and his mother and Grammy have an intolerant, frustrated relationship. The Once-ler’s family is far worse, with his mother and cousins constantly belittling him verbally and demonstrating no love. In The Once-ler’s case, however, this negative family environment clearly has consequences intended by the storytellers to show what a lack of parental love can drive a person to do.
Ultimately, these thorns don’t spoil the film, as they’re offset by the uplifting messages that win out in the end. Ted undergoes the most inspiring transformation, as viewers watch him grow from a girl-obsessed boy into a young man willing to risk everything to do what is right. In this effort, even Ted’s family bands together to help him, showing that perhaps they, too, have learned from Ted’s adventure.
They won’t be the only ones, as The Lorax pulls no punches in showing the power of an individual, no matter how small or insignificant he or she may seem, to make a difference in the lives of others—and, in that way, to change the world.
Check out these similar titles:
Up (Pixar, 2009)
The Incredibles (Disney, 2004)
The Legend of the Three Trees (TLC, 2001)