The Lorax is everything it claims to be against. It's plastic. It's fake. It's utterly disposable. It has no love in its heart for nature, or for anything else. They took one of Dr. Seuss' most famous books and turned it into a dull comedy, full of tedious pop-culture in-jokes and bland songs. Interspersed with environmental lecturing that manages to be both shrill and boring. How did the creators of Despicable Me ever go so wrong?
Kid-friendly animated movies need to have two things, in order to be enjoyable (or even tolerable) to adults: a touch of cleverness, and heart. They don't have to be mind-expanding wonders of storytelling, but they do need to be moderately diverting, and created with a modicum of love for the characters and the source material. When these two elements are missing, as in the case of The Lorax, it's horribly noticeable.
The Lorax was probably a difficult Seuss book to adapt to film — it's perhaps the most polemical of Seuss' books, with its overt environmentalist message, and it's kind of a downer, albeit with a smidgen of hope at the end. Plus it's pretty slight, without a lot of slapsticky bits. In the book of The Lorax, the main action involves a guy named the Once-ler, who chopped down all the Truffula trees to use their tufts to create his all-purpose, super-great product, the Thneed. A mystical creature called the Lorax tried to convince him to save the trees, but to no avail. Until there were no trees left and the landscape became a blasted wasteland. A young boy goes to see the Once-ler to find out where all the trees went, and the Once-ler explains, then gives the boy the last Truffula seed so he can plant a new generation of trees.
In the book, the boy who goes to see the Once-ler is somewhat nondescript, but he goes to great lengths to find out "why the Lorax was lifted away" — this quest involves giving the Once-ler a set of items, including the shell of a great great grandfather snail. The boy's search to discover the truth about the Lorax is finally rewarded, when the boy is given the Truffula seed, and the Once-ler tells him that if he tends the tree really well, maybe eventually the Lorax and all his friends (the creatures of the forest) will come back. The main character is really the Once-ler, a greedy Earth-destroying capitalist who finally repents when it's too late.
So when expanding The Lorax into a 90-minute film, you're going to beef up the Once-ler's role somewhat — perhaps flesh out his family, who are barely mentioned in the book, and give him some more character traits than just "greedy capitalist" — but the obvious place to add to the story is in the character of the nameless boy, who goes to see the Once-ler and winds up getting the last seed.
And here's where the movie runs into trouble.
The character of the boy only has one trait in the original book: he wants to know why the Lorax was lifted away. Apparently this isn't considered an interesting motivation in the film, because it's completely scrapped. Instead, the film gives him a whole new motivation: Ted (Zac Efron) is trying to impress Audrey (Taylor Swift) by getting her a real-life tree. Neither of them has ever heard of the Lorax, and the girl is the only one who cares about trees — the boy would happily chop down the last tree in the world if she asked him to.
So the only person in the film who really cares about the trees is Audrey, but she doesn't really care that much — or she would have done something about it herself. She's perhaps the flattest, least interesting character I've seen in years. At one point, she paints a mural of some trees on the back wall of her house, and then an evil corporation comes and paints over it. How does she respond to this outrage? She looks sad for a second, and then it's never mentioned again. (A corporation invaded her property and painted over her mural, and she just sort of shrugs.)
There's really two problems with turning The Lorax into a love story: 1) It's not what The Lorax is about, and it sort of misses the point. 2) It's incredibly bland and buttery. It's exactly what you'd expect from the words "a love story between Zac Efron and Taylor Swift," in fact.
How could they make a Lorax movie in which the kid who goes to see the Once-ler doesn't give a crap about the trees? Seriously. How?
Which leads to the other huge problem with this film: the world that Ted (Efron's character) lives in. In order to flesh out Ted's story beyond the bare-bones framing device it is in the book, the film has to build a whole world for him to live in. In the book, we just see him at the "edge of town," where the grickle-grass grows, and then he travels out to the post-apocalyptic landscape where the Lorax once stood. The film-makers have to create a home for Ted, and that's where they run into trouble.
Ted lives in Thneedville — yes, an entire city named after a single consumer product, that no longer even exists — which is a domed city where everybody pays for air. There's an evil corporation, called O'Hare Air, and they deliver bottled air to your home, just like people get bottled water delivered. People pay for air! It's capitalism run amok.
Yes, that's right — on top of Dr. Seuss' already existing satire on capitalism, with the multi-purpose-but-useless Thneed, the movie layers another satire on capitalism. I'm pretty darn liberal, and I still wanted this movie to shut up and stop lecturing me.
Everybody in Thneedville is sort of apathetic and happy but boring, except the girl who cares about trees and the boy who wants to smooch her. Oh, and the town is full of artificial trees that can play disco music and show a disco ball at the press of a button, so the movie can shoehorn in an "old people like disco" joke.
It's really not possible to overstate how dull most of this is. The film even throws in a Betty White role — she plays Zac Efron's grandma — because everybody likes Betty White, and she manages to be as bland as watered-down gravy.
So on top of this ham-fisted double-satire of capitalism, the film includes a villain who personifies these themes: Mr. O'Hare, the owner of O'Hare Air. (Like the Once-ler, he's voiced by a Daily Show guy, in this case Rob Riggle.) O'Hare is possibly the least interesting villain I've seen in quite some time, partly because he doesn't actually, y'know, do much. Like, it's supposed to be against the rules to leave Thneedville, and yet after Ted has left town a couple times despite O'Hare's warnings, O'Hare... does nothing. He just sort of scowls a bit. O'Hare wants to prevent Ted from getting the last Truffula seed and planting a tree, because then he won't be able to make people pay for breathable air any more.
The thought that kept popping into my head, as I was listening to all the bland songs — especially the rousing finale chorus where everybody sings about trees and planting seeds and the future and mounting the Koch Brothers' heads on pikes, la la la — was: People should just rent Wall-E instead. Seriously, If you want a fun animated romp with a message about saving the environment and some anti-corporate satire... rent Wall-E. Everything The Lorax fails to do, Wall-E already pulled off.
The really baffling thing about The Lorax is that it comes from the creators of Despicable Me, one of the coolest animated films of recent years. Things that Despicable Me has that The Lorax lacks include: 1) a single relatable main character. 2) funny jokes. 3) A rousing final set piece, in which the stakes are raised and everything spins out of control amusingly. 4) A massive dose of heart, as Gru the supervillain grows to care about the little girls he's taken in. It's like the Despicable guys forgot everything they knew about telling a good story.
It's not all bad, though — Danny DeVito is pretty fun as the titular Lorax, and some of the flashback scenes in which the Lorax tries to keep the Once-ler from chopping down the trees are pretty great. When the movie veers towards actually following the source material, it's noticeably more entertaining than when the creators are making up stuff from whole cloth. The forest creatures are ridiculously cute in the flashback scenes, too, especially the bears. There's a kernel of something wonderful underneath all of the loud bombast and newly invented characters in this film.
But all in all, The Lorax is a waste.