Seuss on Screen Part 4: The Lorax

A 12-year-old boy searches for the one thing that will enable him to win the affection of the girl of his dreams. To find it, he must discover the story of the Lorax, the grumpy yet charming forest creature who fights to protect his world,”

Ladies and gentlemen, those few above words
Make my ears scream in agony from what they’ve just heard.
The Lorax, a Seuss adaptation of late,
Brings no other emotion inside me but hate
Hate for this film and for what they have done,
But people still watched it, and it cashed in a ton.
Without further ado and no minimus morax,
My name is AbStar. And this is The Lorax

What you read above is the description on the DVD of 2012’s The Lorax. Produced and distributed by Illumination Entertainment and Universal, The Lorax was a huge financial success, raking in $348 million at the box office. It’s the second of the full-length animated feature films based on Ted Geisel’s work and the fourth film overall. The financial success led to announcements of future animated films of The Grinch and Cat in the Hat. It also led to myself and other Seuss devotees cringing in fear as to what new level of insult these movies could set to such a great writer’s work. But for now, I’m ripping apart The Lorax.

Before launching into this rant of epic proportions, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. The Lorax is NOT the worst of the Seuss films. Cat in the Hat wins that trophy hands down. The Lorax has some elements that almost work, and I’ll get to those. But it’s easily the Seuss movie I have the harshest feelings towards, and it’s the one that makes me the saddest. Why is this? Let’s look at the source material.

the-lorax
The Lorax was written in 1971 and is easily the darkest of Dr Seuss’ books. There’s little if any of his trademark whimsical humour and bright colours. In the book, a young nameless boy living in a polluted city visits the Once-ler, a mysterious reclusive creature who knows the story of the Lorax, and the mystery of why there are no trees in the town. The Once-ler reveals he chopped down the Truffula trees years ago in order to make Thneeds, an absurdly versatile invention. All the while, the Once-ler is at odds with the Lorax, who tries to warn him of the dangers.
Interestingly, the book is told through two narrators. The beginning and ending of the book is the second person, making the reader the nameless child, which creates a very powerful image, especially in the conclusion. Again, this will be important later. The majority of the story is narrated by the Once-ler in first person, essentially making the antagonist the protagonist like the Grinch.
The Lorax was Dr Seuss’ personal favourite of his books. “The Lorax,” he said “came out of my being angry. In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.”
Like many others, I believe The Lorax is one of the best children’s books ever written. It’s engaging, uncompromisingly grim and very adult in theme. As usual with Seuss’ writing, it never panders to the children. But what I love most about the book is how it DOESN’T knock you over the head with an environmental message. It doesn’t paint black and white extremes. It’s simply a cautionary tale about greed, both corporate and personal. It’s not my all-time favourite Seuss book (nothing will ever beat Oh! The Places You’ll Go!) but it’s definitely in my top 3.

Unlike other books, The Lorax actually does lend itself to a movie. It’s very story driven, it has great characters in the Once-ler and the Lorax, there’s so much subtlety and weight to the message. And yes, there is a good animated special from 1972 with a teleplay and lyrics by Seuss himself, who also produced. The animated special goes more in depth of the Once-ler debating himself about the pollution his factory is causing and shows the argument of economics and employment. Sure, it’s a bit dated now, but it still holds up as a much better adaptation than the….thing I’m about to review.

Actually, it’s not so much a review as opposed to a beatdown. Rather than simply going beginning to end, I’m instead going to look at the elements of the movie and compare to both the book and the animated special. Is this unfair, especially considering my mantra that changes are necessary in adaptation to new mediums? Well, no. Because I can tolerate changes and even like them if they serve the base story and respect the source material. The changes made here are an abomination. There’s not one shred of respect to Seuss’ writing or to the target audience.

Comparison #1: Setting and new characters.

The problems in the movie become dazzlingly clear from the very beginning. In the film, the book’s nameless boy becomes 12 year old Ted (get it? That’s Dr Seuss’ real name!) and he lives in a town called Thneedville. Very clever. Allow me to give you a visual comparison of these settings. This is what the town in the book looks like.

town

This is what Thneedville looks like in the film.

thneedville

You starting to see the problem here?

As opposed to the desolate wasteland in the book, Ted is living in a plastic paradise. Everything is artificial and there are no trees. They literally sing an upbeat tune about how much they love living this way.

‘In Thneedville we love living this way/It’s like living in paradise/It’s perfect and that’s how it will stay/Here in love-the-life-we-leadville’.

I can’t type out any more lyrics. It’s all in the same vein and it just hurts. This is where the message starts getting skewed. By putting Ted in this place, the movie removes all weight of the consequences of the Once-ler, because there are none to begin with. There’s no urgency, no darkness, and no reason for anybody to want to change things. Humans are very happy to live like this, buying fresh air and running fake trees on battery power. Ugh.
Yes, I know they’re being ironic and this could potentially be the forerunner to a big character arc but it’s not. And it’s going to come back and bite them later in the movie.

Ted, by the way, is voiced by Zac Efron. That’s right, a 26 year old man is voicing a 12 year old. It’s about as lazy and out of place as you can imagine. This, sadly, is only the first in a long line up of bad voice acting.

So, with absolutely no reason whatsoever for Ted to go search for the Once-ler, again sucking out the impact of a boy going of his own volition, the movie instead gives him the most selfish motivation you could possibly give a character. See, there’s a pretty girl next door named Audrey (named after Seuss’ still-living widow) who loves to paint, and wishes to see a real tree for her birthday.

tedandaudrey.jpg

Meet Bland and Blander.

Yes, you read that correctly. Ted goes in search of a tree to basically get in a girl’s pants. Not to make the world better. So faithful to the original story!

Like Ted, Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift) was born without a personality. They’re about the most boring characters you can imagine, lazily written to the extreme, which is not helped by the bad voice acting. It’s obvious they were picked for the names and not for the credibility of their performances. They’re given nothing to work with either. Their “relationship” and “romance” is not interesting or fun, and you don’t care about them.

But maybe the side characters can be fun. How do the rest of Thneedville pan out?
Ted’s mother is even less interesting than the mother in Cat and the Hat, the townspeople make no impact whatsoever and only feature in the stupid musical numbers. And what was with that delivery guy’s voice? A big tough masculine man with a high pitched tenor? It’s the most jarring one heard in the film.

Then we have Ted’s Grammy Norma (Betty White, who adds some form of dignity despite the script) who advises Ted to go find the Once-ler.

This is a hugely missed opportunity. Grammy Norma could have been a serene figure who nurtured Ted’s curiosity. She could have been the only one in town to remember trees (apparently she is, but it’s only revealed in a single line. At the end of the movie). She doesn’t even need to necessarily be alive. Maybe Ted could have grown up hearing her stories. Maybe he’s just remembering her. Maybe he finally found the guts to go find the Once-ler himself, having seen the destruction of Thneedville. It practically writes itself. But no, she’s just an energetic, snowboarding senior citizen who is happy to sit around smiling as Aloysius “Did-I-Mention-I’m-The-Antagonist” O’Hare takes over the town.

O'hare1

“I’m Frankenstein’s head on a spider’s body! I’m also a complete and utter waste of animation,”

You’ve never heard of Aloysius O’Hare, you say? Well, nobody has because he was completely made up for the movie. And he’s easily the worst character added. Aside from poor Rob Riggle being forced to make something of a completely one-dimensional character, he has a stupid design ripped off from Shrek and The Incredibles, and no redeeming features whatsoever. He’s just the evil head of the evil corporation that runs the town, selling oxygen to people since the air is too polluted (by the way, where is the oxygen coming from if there are no trees? They never answer that). He apparently monitors the town constantly. There is no reason for this. Nobody is interested in trees aside from Audrey.
O’Hare hates trees because they make oxygen for free. That’s his motivation. Money, money, money. Much like the producers of this film. He never seems the least bit threatening as an antagonist. And what’s more, Dr Seuss deliberately avoided this type of character in his book. Why? Because the idea behind The Lorax is that there is no villain. Speaking of which, the Once-ler is due to appear any minute. This is by far the most depressing aspect of the movie. The story of The Lorax is treated as a mere annoyance. The movie is way more interested in Thneedville than, you know, the actual plot, and it’s as boring as you can imagine. It goes beyond mere laziness. It’s actually sickening. Don’t believe me? They directly mock and alter Dr Seuss’ writing. Not once, but TWICE.

The first such occurrence comes when Audrey is describing Truffula trees to Ted. The original text is provided for purposes of sticking it to the writers in every way possible. (Warning: this is really going to hurt)

EXHIBIT A
Original text
But those trees! Those trees!
Those Truffula Trees!
All my life I’d been searching for trees such as these.
The touch of their tufts was much softer than silk
And they had the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk

Movie dialogue
Audrey: And they even smelled like butterfly milk.
Ted: Wow….what does that even mean?
Audrey: I know, right?

No, dear reader. That is not a joke. They literally just mocked the writing of the author they claim to fight so hard for. This is a new low for these movies to sink.

EXHIBIT B
Original text

At the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows
And the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows
And no birds ever sing excepting old crows
Is the street of the Lifted Lorax

Movie dialogue
Grammy Norma: Far outside of town where the grass never grows

What, may I ask, is wrong with Grickle-grass, writers? It’s not copyrighted, you’re making a movie. And for the record, the grass doesn’t grow in Thneedville anyway. What’s the difference of grass not growing outside town?!?

When Ted shows up at the Once-ler’s Lerkim, the Once-ler isn’t interested in telling the story, even though Ted has the correct payment, like in the book. You had to bring 15 cents, a nail, and the shell of a great-great-great grandfather snail. If Ted didn’t bring these items, it would make sense that the Once-ler would tell him to beat it. But he did, so telling Ted to buzz off doesn’t make sense.

Ok, ok, that’s a serious nitpick. Moving on. Let’s look at the Once-ler himself.

Comparison #2: Characterisation and story arc

In the book and the animated special, this is all you ever see of the Once-ler.

good onceler

Right

In the movie, we get…. *sigh* this.

badonceler

No

He has a face. And I don’t like it.
What’s wrong with giving the Once-ler a face, I hear you ask?
Because it goes against everything the character represents. Take the book, for example.

You won’t see the Once-ler
Don’t knock at his door
He stays in his Lerkim on top of his store
He lurks in his Lerkim, cold under the roof
Where he makes his own clothes out of miff-muffered moof.

Did you spot the incredibly subtle and nuanced detail there, movie? YOU WON’T. SEE. THE ONCE-LER. The whole idea behind the Once-ler is that he could be anyone. This reinforces the message of personal choices affecting the environment. Why you felt the need to give him a face is beyond me. Was it just too difficult to think how to hide him? You realise you could have saved a lot of paper and animation costs by not giving him a face, right? And even if the Once-ler did reveal his face in the book, would you imagine he’d look anything like that?
And then just to be completely insufferable they make him an idiot with an electric guitar. He’s no longer a single-minded sombre businessman, he’s comic relief in a film that is nothing BUT comic relief. And he doesn’t become consumed by productivity through his own choices, his evil family goes all Lady Macbeth and forces him to cut down the trees. Oh, and he previously promised the Lorax no more trees would be cut down.

I need a bucket. This is making me nauseous.

loraxmad

Definitely my facial expression

And now it’s time to talk about the Lorax. To his credit, Danny Devito is pretty much the perfect choice for the Lorax. He’s the only good voice acting for the movie, but that still comes with a price. The Lorax, again, is turned into a joke we’re supposed to laugh at. He’s given a ridiculously over the top entrance as he emerges from the tree stump. We’re talking thunder and lightning Thor-style. Movie, you do realise that the Lorax was literally the first thing we saw, right?
Anyway, from the second he appears on screen, the Lorax is played entirely for cheap and insulting laughs. He’s not dignified, he’s not wise. Danny Devito is actually perfect for this role, and we know he’s a good actor, but they’re afraid to let him do his thing.
You can pretty much sum up the Lorax’s true character from his first line in the book

Mister,” he said with a sawdusty sneeze
I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,”

It’s just a few words and a simple concept, but Dr Seuss creates more depth in that one line than the entire film.
To be fair, there are one or two moments with the in the movie where Danny Devito really gets to inhabit the Lorax, namely when the final Truffula tree is chopped down. And there’s a very touching moment when all the forest creatures come to mourn the loss of the first tree. If the whole movie had been in this vein, it would have been brilliant. Sadly this scene is undone a few minutes later as the Lorax and his friends toss the sleeping Once-ler into the river, nearly drowning him. Terrific.

I haven’t mentioned the forest creatures yet, trying to delay it as long as possible. Why? Because they are some of the most hateful side characters ever put in a family picture. The Bar-ba-loots are greedy and stupid, the Swomee Swans don’t sing, the Humming fish are annoying….actually, all these characters were insanely annoying. And you know why? Because they’re scrounged from the Minions’ table scraps. I shouldn’t be surprised, considering it’s the same studio and director behind Despicable Me, but damn it, it’s still horrible. Ripping off the Minions only proves the hypocritical corporate greed behind this picture. These characters are just here to market toys. You want to know what Dr Seuss thought about pointless marketing? He went out of his way to avoid it his whole life. A toy company once sent him a box of badly made toys of his characters, and he responded by throwing them into a swimming pool.

By the way, for all their spewing of evil big business, the evil big business responsible for this waste of time managed to collect 70 product tie ins for the movie. 70 product tie-ins. Are you kidding me?!?

Making the forest animals completely moronic and essentially one big toy ad didn’t make me feel emotion for them And it didn’t make me sympathise with their plight. I honestly didn’t care when they are forced to leave. This is partially due to them being constantly infuriating with their antics, but we don’t spend much time with any of these characters and therefore don’t really care about them. Not to mention the important parts of the story are pretty much glanced over.
The Bar-ba-loots, Swomee Swans and Humming Fish are all sent off at once, unlike the book which sends them off one by one and the Once-ler feels pangs of his conscience. What, are we trying to create build up here?
In this 90 minute film, the entire story of The Lorax book, is only told in a 3 minute musical number. That’s right. It’s not even a good song, either. The Once-ler just prances around singing “How bad can I be?” Sounds like the movie producers, actually.
The most important part of The Lorax is the effect of the trees being cut down, and it’s crushed into a bite sized musical montage that again, we’re supposed to find funny rather than disturbing. Let’s ignore the real message. Let’s pad the damn thing out with car chases and zany antics. Oh yes, there’s a car chase in the movie. It goes on for about ten minutes too.

Comparison #3: Climax
At the end of the book, there’s an extremely powerful and poignant climax with the Once-ler handing the boy (essentially, the reader!) the last Truffula seed, and urges them to plant it in the hopes that the Lorax and all of his friends will return.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
So….CATCH!”
Calls the Once-ler
He lets something fall.
It’s a Truffula Seed.
It’s the last one of all!
You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula seeds
And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back,”

It’s not a happy ending. It’s not a sad ending. It’s a hopeful ending which leaves the reader with the choice to make this a better world. So, do we get this beautifully ambiguous ending in the movie?
HAHAHA, NO! Not a chance. That would be the adult route. Nope, Ted takes the seed and comes home to find O’Hare waiting for him, gives him the slip and asks Audrey to help him plant the seed in the middle of town so everyone can see, and they spend the next ten minutes being pursued by O’Hare and his minions to stop them planting the tree.

So….what’s at stake here?

Think about it. I’ve heard a few critics say there’s nothing at stake in the climax, and they’re right. If Ted and Audrey don’t grow the seed, so what? Humanity isn’t going to be destroyed. Nobody will die. Nothing will go wrong. Things will just be the way they always were. And humanity is happy with the way things are. Ted and Audrey will apparently be together regardless. So….what’s the problem?

It’s never once insinuated that the oxygen levels are running out, or the town is in danger of being overrun by the destruction outside. They don’t even know about it. And it’s not going to affect them either way. There is nothing on the line here. No reason what so ever for this ridiculous “climax”.
Oh, and the townspeople need about two minutes to completely change their minds and decide that trees are awesome. Much like how the Once-ler turned into a douchebag after one song.

And the absolute worst part about this ending? The Lorax comes back.

That is not a joke.

Dearest cinema gods of heaven and hell, did the writers even read the book?!?

Why did you want to bring him back? Oh that’s right, kids can’t handle a not-so-happy ending. You just had to make everything sunshine and roses, ignoring the sugar-free source material. And even after all this, they STILL can’t go all the way with a soft moment. The Lorax is back, it’s pleasant enough, the music is nice, but nope, then we’re back to making us laugh and ignoring what SHOULD be a huge moment, if it even needed to exist at all. AND IT DIDN’T.

It may not be the worst of the Seuss movies, and the animation is immaculate, but the reason The Lorax makes me the saddest is because this was the book which had the potential to be the easiest and best adaptation of Dr Seuss’ work. Everything was there. The story arc, the potential to expand, the characters, the tone, the world. And they were STILL too scared to trust the source material!

See, The Lorax suffers from the same problems as Horton Hears a Who. It doesn’t believe in its own message and doesn’t want to give the kids a split second of silence in case they high tail it out of the theatre. I am so incredibly sick of seeing these movies that are afraid of atmospheric moments! And again, they spoon feed the comedy in endless, stupid and completely pointless slapstick. If I wanted to see good slapstick, I’d go watch Tom and Jerry or Looney Tunes.

They twisted this into a pandering comedy with stupid characters and bad voice acting. They were afraid that a ‘simple kid’s book’ wasn’t enough to tell a good story. They were afraid of their target audience. They didn’t trust in the intelligence of children. They were afraid to give us anything memorable. They were afraid of the truth.
Instead, we got a movie that is brightly coloured junk food for the mind. And that’s the last thing Dr Seuss wanted. Kids are not going to come away from this thinking anything meaningful about nature or the duty we have to this planet. They aren’t going to see the consequences of misplaced priorities or greed. They’re only going to think “Oh, look at the pretty colours and funny bears,” It’s the equivalent of waving keys in their faces.

Dr Seuss’ books are loved for both the writing and his iconic drawings. But you could take out the drawings and STILL have a brilliant book because his writing didn’t depend on pretty colours to distract the children. That’s not what he stood for, and I don’t think anyone else should either.
I’m not going to pretend everything Seuss wrote was perfect. There are books of his that I think are merely ok, or just a fun little romp. But for crying out loud, he always managed to get SOME form of entertainment out of what he did. My only hope is that people actually went and read the damn thing afterwards.

Seuss’ books don’t need to be fixed. They don’t need to be modernised. They don’t necessarily need to be adapted. And especially not like this. Please, for the love of good literature, don’t show your children The Lorax. Don’t expose them to this cash-in. It might seem cute, but that’s not enough.

If you think this movie is poison, like me,
Don’t watch this movie, go plant a tree.
Read the book, watch the special, put your time to good use
My name is AbStar, and I speak for the Seuss.

(Here, I’ll even provide the link. You can thank me later.)

Audio book https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKmbSJjXzFk

1972 version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8V06ZOQuo0k

One thought on “Seuss on Screen Part 4: The Lorax

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Dr Seuss books | AbStar921 – Musical Critic

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