Saturday, March 3, 2012

Brightly colored "Lorax" gets a lot of Dr. Seuss right

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (2012)
86 min., rated PG.
Grade:  B - 

"I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues."
- The Lorax

After the live-action "How The Grinch Stole Christmas," which was a mildly entertaining if padded-out production, and the crass miscalculation that was "The Cat in the Hat," it felt like Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel's wonderfully simple stories would never work perfectly on the screen. Then when 2008's animated "Horton Hears a Who!" turned out to be a delightful treat, there seemed to be hope. Now, "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" turns the good doctor's 1971 children's book into an animated eye-filler and finally gets Seuss right. In fact, it's actually deserving of the author's name at the head of the title. 

In the artificial town of Thneed-Ville, everything is "plastic and fake" without nature and the inflatable shrubbery can glow like a disco ball. The mayor, Mr. O'Hare (Bob Riggle), a tycoon diminutive in size but full of greed, makes money selling bottles of fresh air since he believes trees are a threat to his corporate profits. 12-year-old Ted (voiced by Zac Efron) has a major crush on his neighbor, Audrey (Taylor Swift), and deliberately lands his model airplane in her backyard. When she shows him her paintings of trees on the siding of her house and expresses her wish of seeing a real tree, Ted sets out to find her one. With a nudge from his Grammy Norma (Betty White), he goes in search of The Once-ler, who may hold the key. Venturing outside of the city walls and into a murky, industrial wasteland, Ted finds the Once-ler (Ed Helms) living as a hermetic grinch, who proceeds to tell Ted that he was the reason the trees of Truffula Valley were wiped out. 

In flashback, the Once-ler was a teenage hipster who, at the time, was driven to invent "Thneeds" out of trees and make a fortune. Stumbling upon the cheerful, tree-filled Truffula Valley, he began chopping down the trees. From the stump, the mustachioed, peanut-sized "guardian of the forest" known as The Lorax (Danny DeVito) would appear to "speak for the trees" and warn the young man of the consequences. But as it turns out, the Once-ler ignored his warning and thus upset the balance of nature, as his big corporation consumed him. Back to the present, there's one Truffula seed left, so can Ted stop the scheming O'Hare and bring a little nature back to Thneed-Ville. 

Beatific and Seussian in spirit, "The Lorax" is a vibrant joy for the eyes. The computer animators show their technical prowess by beautifully capturing Dr. Seuss' drawings. The Lorax, the other critters, and everything nature look so brightly colored and fuzzy and tactile (the tufts of the Truffula trees look like cotton candy). Those teddy-bear Brown Bar-ba-loots are adorable and the harmonizing trio of Humming-Fish add amusement. The filmmakers, co-directors Chris Renaud (2010's "Despicable Me") and Kyle Balda with screenwriters Ken Daurio ("Horton Hears a Who!") and Cinco Paul ("Despicable Me"), thankfully don't vulgarize this material, but sometimes jettison the whimsical rhymes and let the frantic action bounce off the walls instead. The brillance of Seuss' storytelling was in its clever whimsy and succinctness, whereas the movie succumbs to "biggering" itself. 

While the source material was a mere 45 pages, the story is expanded to feature length. As published 41 years ago, the essence of the story remains unaltered. But on screen, we actually see the Once-ler in his human form and the addition of Audrey seems necessary in order to give Ted more motivation for finding out about the trees. Only does the creation of another villain, O'Hare, feel like filler. One can assume the character was written in to sell the ecological "Save the Trees!" message even more. O'Hare even states that "photosynthesis" is bogus, but the pointed themes of corporate greed, anti-consumerism, and deforestation aren't laid on with a trowel either. Musical numbers have also been incorporated into the fable. These interludes are peppy and sweepingly staged with creative wonder. One of them is even self-aware. But none of them are that memorable so you can happily hum a tune afterwards. The closest to a show-stopper is "How Bad Can I Be," and the climactic "Let It Grow" is a joyful ensemble number. 

As every Seuss adaptation needs a comic name on top (i.e. Jim Carrey and Mike Myers), DeVito voices The Lorax with a lovably grouchy attitude. Out of the Seussian movies, this is the first to actually marginalize its title character, who only appears in the flashback framework. The Once-ler calls The Lorax "slightly annoying," but it would've been nice to see more of the little orange peanut. Efron and Swift lend their optimistic voices to Ted and Audrey, both named after Theodor Seuss and his second wife Audrey, and they're likable enough heroes to follow. Well-cast to do the voice for the Once-ler, Helms makes this flawed young man-turned-recluse the most interesting. White is forever "the feisty grandmother," even in animated form, but her Grammy gets some of the laughs. 

"The Lorax" speaks for the kids. It speaks for the kids, for their parents might get a little bored. It's as forgettable as it is pleasantly cute, and more enjoyable than hearing a furry, whiskered Mike Myers make "dirty hoe" innuendos to a garden hoe. Released on the beloved author's 108th birthday, this cinematic treatment would make Seuss proud and should charm its target market enough to make them all tree huggers.

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