Directed by Despicable Me filmmaker Chris Renaud, The Lorax is a pretty good example of computer animation done right. It is based on the Dr. Seuss book of the same name and is at least the second adaptation of the work, with a 1972 animated musical special commonly cited as the first. The 2012 animated feature is a colourful and energetic work, but it also suffers under the weight of its own modernity.
The Dr. Seuss book was lambasted by the logging industry and right-wingers for being against capitalism or, to hear the modern conservative term it, “progress.” Indeed, The Lorax does wisely provoke the idea of how much is “enough.” The “How Bad Can I Be?” song sums this up cleverly, with the suggestion that it is “destiny” and, more importantly, “natural” to “bigger” one’s company. There’s some great stuff in the song about people with money making the world go ‘round, too.
The film opens on Thneedville, a city that is completely artificial in terms of organic matter. Only the people are “real.” Ted (Zac Efron) is a 12-year-old boy with a hankering for Audrey (Taylor Swift), an older girl with a fascination for real trees. Ted sets out to find a so-called real tree after hearing this, thinking that giving her the thing will win Audrey over.
With the help of Grammy Norma (Betty White), Ted heads off to meet the Once-ler (Ed Helms). This mysterious man recounts his discovery of the Truffula Forest and the eventual removal of the last trees because of his desires to succeed in business. Meanwhile the mayor of Thneedville (Rob Riggle) tries to stop Ted from seeing the Once-ler and learning about the Truffula Forest.
The addition of the villainous mayor gives the film its Hollywood style, leading to a conflict resolution apparatus that is familiar to most viewers. It also lowers The Lorax in terms of uniqueness, as Dr. Seuss’ book didn’t include any such character. While it’s neat that the mayor has a plot about selling bottled air, it feels a bit gauche.
Danny DeVito voices the titular character, giving it a sort of New Jersey toughness. The character from the book doesn’t show up often, but the Lorax is stuffed into the movie version with great frequency. DeVito is amusing, but his sharp one-liners seem a bit forced. The fast-talking banter from the other characters, namely the Once-ler in his younger days, gets a bit grating as well. And buying Efron as a youngster half his age takes a lot of thwork.
The Lorax is not a bad film. It’s not anywhere near as good as Horton Hears a Who!, which was clever and colourful without feeling poppy. Some of Horton’s sense of joy and wonder flows into The Lorax, with Renaud wisely capturing both Thneedville and the Truffula Forest with brilliance and colour. They are tremendous animated set pieces.
But apart from the gorgeous look and energy of The Lorax, the plot is too convenient and too ironically artificial to feel authentic. The heart is in the right place and the message is necessary, but hammering it home by adding a bizarre and constricted villain doesn’t help. As it is, Renaud’s feature becomes a pretty average affair indeed.