movie review

The Badness of The Lorax Is a Shock

The Lorax (DANNY DEVITO) demands to know who chopped down the Truffula Tree in
Photo: Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment

The most irritating thing about Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax is its title. The misbegotten new animated feature is somebody’s The Lorax, but Seuss’s? Not hardly. The movie does conform, in its broadest outline, to Theodore Seuss Geisel’s 1971 environmentalist parable, in which a reckless young entrepreneur ravages the natural world and then hides away, in grief and shame, in a hollow tree on the denuded landscape, where he’s tracked down by an inquisitive boy named Ted. (The behavior of the man, known as the Once-ler, is the most flagrantly unrealistic element: Industrialists who devastate large swaths of land don’t stick around to experience the consequences. They move on to the next target and the next. They buy houses in Palm Beach. They bankroll libertarian think tanks.) But Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax [sic] isn’t Seussian in spirit. It’s shrill and campy and stuffed with superfluous characters. The first bit of Seussian verse we hear is when a character not in the book, teenage Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift), tells lovelorn 12-year-old Ted (Zac Efron) that once, nearby their now paved-over town, there were truffula trees, and “the touch of their tufts was much softer than silk and they had the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk.” Ted says, “Wow, what does that even mean?” and Audrey says, “I know, right?” So not only don’t you get much Seuss, what you get is made fun of — dragged down to earth.

The badness of the picture is a shock. Directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda and writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul were behind the barnstormingly funny Despicable Me and the last and much better Seuss feature, Horton Hears a Who (narrated by Charles Osgood), but this time they don’t seem to trust their material. To be fair, they have some reason. The book is an environmentalist classic, a walloping argument against unchecked growth. But it’s nowhere near Seuss’s top tier: It doesn’t have that thrilling mixture of anarchism and elegance. It’s agitprop, with no surprises and a title character — a mysterious creature who “speaks for the trees” — that even Geisel seems to find a pain in the ass, describing him as “shortish. And oldish. And brownish. And mossy” who speaks “with a voice that [is] sharpish and bossy.” Fortunately, the Lorax doesn’t appear in the book very much and you don’t actually have to hear his voice …

In the film, however, you get loud serenades in Danny DeVito’s unmellifluous blend of New Jersey blare and Philly nasality. I don’t blame DeVito: It’s not as if he were cast for his subtlety. He’s a good, pushy sitcom actor with crack timing. But given his nonstop crass one-liners, he comes to embody the spirit of the movie in ways I don’t think the filmmakers intend.

Ready for nonstop whack-a-mole sight gags featuring adorable bar-ba-loots (bears to you) and three warbling fish — this year’s chipmunks? The Once-ler’s white trash relatives, zeppelins or stick dufuses, barrel into the truffula forest in an RV and proceed to hack and chop away. The screenwriters add a stock villain to the framing story, a pint-size mogul who pollutes by design, since unbreathable air drives up sales of his company’s canned air. He and his goons chase after 12-year-old Ted when the boy ventures into the denuded wasteland to talk to the aged, reclusive Once-ler — not because the kid cares about the environment but to impress the teenage Audrey. I guess that makes him easier to relate to than if he were just, you know, curious about why there are no animals and the landscape looks like the moon.

No, Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax [sic] isn’t as eyeball-searing as the live-action Mike Myers monstrosity The Cat in the Hat, which even Geisel’s injudicious widow Audrey found repulsive, compelling her to pull the plug on any future live-action Seuss adaptations. The diaphanous texture of the truffula blooms is lovely, and there’s a witty song, “How Bad Can I Be?,” in which the Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms) rocks out with his electric guitar, proclaiming his Capitalist Manifesto as the trees come down. The movie is more compelling in the last twenty minutes, when the cute animals — not to mention the Lorax — take a hike. For a brief spell, it has the book’s sense of loss, its droopy melancholy. You can still discern the stark fable beneath the movie’s jokey tone, but barely: The devastation is nearly complete. The Lorax speaks for the trees — but who will speak for The Lorax?

The Badness of The Lorax Is a Shock