THE LORAX: Unless Someone Like You Cares a Whole Awful Lot, Nothing is Going to Get Better, It’s Not

The Lorax (2012) – Directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda – Starring Zac Efron, Danny DeVito, Ed Helms, Taylor Swift, Rob Riggle, Betty White, Jenny Slate, Nasim Pedrad, and Stephen Tobolowksy.

THE LORAX is a so-so movie with a really great message. I’m surprised, given my environmental leanings, that I don’t like the movie a whole lot more, but while the film is wonderfully colorful and vibrant and while it’s got a great pro-environment message, it spends too much time with its human characters and not enough time with its titular character. The result is a film that starts off really strong and slowly gives away all of the positive karma the opening scenes create.

It begs the question: Why would a film called THE LORAX contain so little Lorax?

The Once-ler (Ed Helms) is a young man with big dreams and leaves his home to make his own way in the world. He makes his way to a valley full of Truffula Trees and cuts one down to make his “thneed,” which he intends to sell as a kind of all purpose cloth accessory. In cutting down the tree, the supernatural protector of the forest known as the Lorax (Danny DeVito) appears, and after some back and forth, makes the Once-ler promise to not cut any more trees down. The Once-ler, who seems like a decent enough fella, agrees, but then when the thneed becomes popular, the Once-ler bows to the pressure of his money-hungry family and starts chopping all the trees down. Eventually, the last tree falls and the environmental devastation causes all the animals of the forest to flee for (literally) greener pastures. With thneed production now over, the Once-ler’s family leaves him and he becomes a hermit.

Decades later, we’re introduced to Ted Wiggins (Zac Efron), a 12-year old kid living in the walled-in city of Thneedville in love with the older, high school-attending Audrey (Taylor Swift). Audrey lets Ted know that she wants to see a tree more than anything in the world, and so in a desperate attempt to impress her, he asks his mother (Jenny Slate) and grandmother (Betty White) if they know where he can find one. This leads to him leaving the city to find the Once-ler and hear his story in the hopes of finding a tree. By the end of his tale, the Once-ler has given Ted the last Truffula Tree seed and he runs back to town to plant it and make everyone come alive at the thought of having real, live trees in their midst again.

It’s a simple story told relatively well, but the problem with THE LORAX is that the Lorax and the forest creatures are the most interesting characters in the film, but it’s the mostly annoying Once-ler and the mostly okay Ted that get the bulk of the screen time. It makes narrative sense, of course, as we need the Once-ler to fall and Ted to rise to get the film’s message that the environment is worth saving, but just because something makes sense doesn’t mean it’s a great watch.

There’s a few songs in the film, too, but they’re mostly duds. The opening “Thneedville” number is pretty good. I’m a sucker for these city-wide sing-alongs and the number does a pretty good job of setting up the totally mechanical world of the namesake city. The closing “Let it Grow” is the same style of song, and the film manages to work some decent emotion out of the town’s environmental awakening. The main song in the middle of the film, however, is ridiculously dreadful. “How Bad Can I Be?” is completely soulless and lacking in any wit, charm, or (most important, for a song) catchiness.

What really dooms the film is its slide into mediocrity. At the start of the film, I’m digging on Ted’s quest to impress Audrey, the vibrant color contrast between the cold, white city, the dull greys of the post-apocalyptic landscape outside, and the bright Truffula Tree valley, and the Once-ler’s story. Ted’s relationship with his grandma is fun to watch, as is the Once-ler’s early relationship with the animals of the valley. By the time Ted has made an enemy out of Aloysius O’Hare (Rob Riggle), the diminutive mayor of Thneedville who’s made his fortune selling air in plastic bottles, and the Once-ler has felled his last tree, the film has lost its charm and fallen into a bland hodge-podge of other cinematic ideas.

And the biggest problem is that the Lorax himself goes away, which robs the film of the bright, humorous balance to the Once-ler giving himself over to the evils of industrialization. (Note that the film does not say that making money is evil – even the Lorax seemed okay with Once-ler making money with his thneeds so long as he was merely pruning the trees instead of chopping them down.)

It’s a shame. Given my love for the animated Horton Hears a Who!, I had high hopes for THE LORAX but the film ultimately fails to deliver anything more than a moderately appealing time. I love the look of the film but the narrative and the songs let the film down. I wanted more Lorax and Pipsqueak and less Granny on a motor scooter.

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And hey, if you like all ages stories, check out my kid’s novel ADVENTURES OF THE FIVE: THE COMING OF FROST. Available now in both paperback and for the Kindle.

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