I am a big fan of Dr. Seuss. I have studied him. I have parodied him. I admire his work greatly and follow the various adaptations that have been made based on his work with great enthusiasm. Watching Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, the latest film from Illumination Entertainment, the folks who brought us Despicable Me, I feel more than a twinge of disappointment. The film manages to get so much of Dr. Seuss right, but somehow fails when it comes to the big stuff – the characters and story.
Directed by Chris Renaud (who directed Despicable Me) and co-directed by Kyle Balda (layout supervisor on Despicable Me), The Lorax is a tale of the importance of our environment. It features this odd orange furball with a big mustache, The Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito), and the man who would destroy all the Truffula Trees and other natural bits in the area, The Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms). The Once-ler’s goal is to make something called a thneed (this ridiculous object with a million uses) out of the tufts of the Truffulas. So, he chops down the trees to do it. He is big business, he is out for himself without a care in the world about what he’s doing to the animals and world around him. His actions end up destroying the environment and it isn’t until the last Truffula is gone that he bothers to stop, look around, and truly contemplate what he’s done.
Or, at least that’s the way it’s supposed to play out. That is the tale in the book; it is the tale Seuss told. It isn’t the one with which the film opts to go.
There is, naturally, some difficulty in adapting a book that takes five minutes to read into a 90 minute film. It is also difficult to have a, literally, faceless bad guy at the heart of the story. In the book we never see anything more than The Once-lers arms. So, what Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul’s screenplay does is give The Once-ler a face and a body and a back story. It is a good idea, they just do it badly.
The Once-ler is no longer this businessman who just wants to make money. He is, instead, this misunderstood guy just looking for his big break in the world and who has a family who never accepted him. In fact, once The Lorax explains things to The Once-ler, he doesn’t want to chop down the trees at all, it’s his evil family which forces him into it. The Once-ler does, momentarily, go evil, but it is for only a moment in the film and one quickly glossed over.
The film isn’t content to just ruin The Once-ler as a character though, they also fundamentally change The Lorax, turning him into a joke. Yes, The Lorax still speaks for the trees (for the trees have no tongues), but he—like The Once-ler—is overly softened, made more palatable, less of a hard-liner. The Lorax is, inexplicably, turned into a joke in the film. The message is still there, but it’s buried under jokes and ridiculous shenanigans. It is a version of The Lorax that ought to make those familiar with the original work cringe.
The film actually suggests that for a while these two guys are friends, a concept incredibly far removed from the book. In fact, in the book, The Once-ler is not just remorseful about what he’s done, but also not too happy about how The Lorax approached the situation. And, that’s with hindsight. The film radically alters this concept and not for the better.