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.
All is not bad however, the further expansion of the story to fill the runtime works surprisingly well. Here they have chosen to expand the book’s frame, telling the tale of the boy (unnamed in the book, but given the name Ted here to honor Dr. Seuss, and voiced by Zac Efron) who goes to The Once-ler to hear the tale of The Lorax. Ted lives in Thneedville and, in order to impress a girl, Audrey (named to honor Dr. Seuss’ wife and voiced by Taylor Swift), he goes to The Once-ler to learn how to get a Truffula seed and bring the trees back to Thneedville. He is plagued in this quest by Aloysius O’Hare, a man who has made a fortune out of selling canned air to Thneedville (because The Once-ler dirtied the air) and who worries his empire will collapse if trees can provide air for free.
O’Hare is a buffoon. He manages to be humorous and evil at the same time. He is, in short, what The Once-ler should have been for the movie. It is clear that the folks behind the movie know how to create a comic villain, but O’Hare’s presence as one makes the decision to soften The Once-ler to the point where he’s nearly as much a victim as anyone else that much more perplexing.
Back to the plus side, the film looks absolutely stunning. They may have gotten the tale wrong, but they got look of the world completely correct. This is a perfect Seussian world, brimming with the sort of feel he gave his books. And, on Blu-ray, it is simply fantastic to see. The level of detail, the eye-popping color, the complete saturation of every inch of screen is a marvel. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax is a beautiful movie, perfectly rendered. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, too, is a joy to behold. Seuss’ world is not just visually brought to life, but sonically as well. With huge musical numbers and more discrete effects, it shows some impressive technical work.
Unfortunately, the setup and content of the bonus features here leaves a lot to be desired. There are three cute mini-movies, deleted scene, and a commentary track all of which are nice enough and easy enough to access. The same is true of some unimpressive games included and the ability to watch with O’Hare commercials inserted into the film. The behind the scenes pieces, however, are far more difficult to find and overly short. One needs to select characters/locations from various screens and then click on them to see what is available in terms of data, artwork, or featurettes. It is a needlessly confusing endeavor and everyone would have been better served by simply presenting the features rather than requiring the viewer hunt for them. A behind the scenes piece on the mini-movies, sing-along track, DVD, and iTunes & Utlraviolet copies fill out the package.
In the end, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax comes off like a movie where the folks behind it read the book but didn’t actually take the time to consider it, nor the story it tells, nor the message it imparts. They are The Once-ler in the middle of the book – they have been given the correct path, they have been told the right way to go, but they choose not to heed the warnings. No one is suggesting that the folks at Illumination are forced to hold to the exact nature of Seuss’ work, but the changes made to the two main characters and the story represent a fundamental alteration of Seuss’ work, and not one that benefits the story. The Lorax is a brilliant cautionary tale as a book and has been turned into a well-produced but overly cutesy story where the moral is all but missing.