Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax / *** (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Ted: Zac Efron
The Once-ler: Ed Helms
The Lorax: Danny DeVito
Audrey: Taylor Swift
Mr. O’Hare: Rob Riggle
Grammy Norma: Betty White
Ted’s Mom: Jenny Slate
Once-ler’s Mom: Nasim Pedrad

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda. Written by Ken Duario and Cinco Paul. Based on the children’s book by Dr. Seuss. Running time: 86 min. Rated PG (for brief mild language).

“Drill, baby, drill!”
            —Popular GOP chant during the failed Republican bid for the U.S. Presidency in the 2008 election.

Many will be very vexed to see a children’s movie turned into a political platform. Several nationally recognized political commentators were even able to denounce the environmental and “anti-corporate” messages within the new animated movie “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” before they even had a chance to see it. I have to ask, however, what is so wrong with it? Why not involve our children in a political discussion that has great repercussions on the future of the planet they inhabit? Shouldn’t we try to educate our children on the problems they will face as they grow older? Isn’t teaching them how to fix a problem before it gets out of hand part of our responsibilities as parents?

The political message isn’t entirely made up for the movie. Dr. Seuss himself was known for writing strong messages into his nursery-rhyme style. His book “The Lorax” has a strong environmental lean to it. The movie tells two stories. The first is an invention of the filmmakers’, which imagines a backstory for the boy who appears in the book. Here his name is Ted, voiced by Zac Efron (“17 Again”). He lives in Thneedville, where everything is plastic and nothing is real, and even air is sold in bottles to its citizens. Ted has a crush on Audrey (Taylor Swift), who is obsessed with trees. Real ones mind you, not the kinds that run on batteries.

Audrey dreams of seeing a real tree one day. Ted sees his chance to impress her and learns of a man who lives outside the walls of Thneedville named the Once-ler, who knows about trees. Ted becomes the first person to leave the walls of the city in years. This brings him to the attention of Mr. O’Hare (Rob Riggle of “The Daily Show”), the man who got rich selling bottled air to the people. O’Hare does not want trees growing in Thneedville because they give fresh air away for free.

The Once-ler’s tale is taken directly from the book. The Once-ler (Ed Helms, “The Office”) tells Ted the story of how all the trees disappeared. The Once-ler was responsible by chopping down the trees to make his invention, the Thneed, a useless product that he was able to convince people had thousands of applications. The Lorax (Danny DeVito, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) appears after the first tree is downed and tries to convince the Once-ler that what he is doing is wrong.

Directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda fill their screen with wall-to-wall Seuss-isms. The color palate is bright. The building and character designs all maintain Seuss’ signature style of organic grandiosity. And, they establish within the first few seconds of running time that this will be a musical extravaganza on top of all that. For the most part, the songs aren’t particularly impressive, except for one number sung by the Once-ler entitled “How Bad Can I Be?” This is the only musical number that truly explores the full bounds of the screen and 3D format.

The two villains in this film aren’t entirely bad. Despite the movie’s anti-greed message, it hardly has an anti-industry message. While the Thneed isn’t really a useful product, the film celebrates the Once-ler’s determination and imagination in providing consumers with a product that brings them joy. It merely criticizes his shortsightedness of exhausting his resources in the way he manufactures his product. Mr. O’Hare, for that matter, actually provides a product that the public needs once all the trees have been chopped down. Again, however, the film criticizes the fact that his greed drives him to repress a solution that will help everyone.

In truth, my boys thought the best moment of the movie was when the Lorax picked himself up by his own posterior. Did they even notice the issues so vehemently argued in national political debates? In a cursory manner, at best. But again, that doesn’t mean that this is not a proper platform for them. They’re kids. Their immediate memories of the film will be of the funny bone delights given to them by the singing fish and bears flying through marshmallow clouds. Their brains will hold onto the rest, however.

The reason we progress from ways that once served us well is because we know in our hearts there’s a better way. Unfortunately, we don’t really get magical creatures like the Lorax to tell us we’re being bullheaded. Hopefully, our children can hold onto this entertainment from their childhood and carry it into their futures to remind them when progress is necessary. It teaches them not to hold onto something just because they’re told to and not to pursue something new without considering its ramifications. 

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