Overstuffed with meaningless stimuli, The Lorax is the latest unnecessary embellishment of one of the all-time classics of children’s literature. Danny DeVito voices the titular creature – a cross between Wilford Brimley and a misanthropic baby walrus – who descends from the sky to demand Christ-like adoration and protect nature’s splendor with nothing but the weapon of shame. His sustainability lecture falls on the deaf ears of the Once-ler (Ed Helms), a young go-getter (today he might be called a “job creator”) who chops down the first truffula tree to make a Thneed, a proto-Snuggie that becomes an accidental fashion sensation and sparks a demand that eventually strips the forest bare. This saga is told entirely in flashback to young Ted (Zac Efron), a preteen boy living in a town so polluted that everyone purchases clean air in bottles and all the foliage is made of inflatable plastic. He becomes determined to find the last living tree of the forest mostly to impress his older crush object, Audrey (Taylor Swift), but if he ends up doing the right thing and saving his hometown in the process, well, that’s nice too.
The Lorax‘s lesson isn’t all that complex, so to kill time the film invents an ineffectual villain for Efron, a bottled-air kingpin (Rob Riggle) who resembles a stouter Linda Hunt. Also padding the runtime are a bunch of cute animal antics and tiresome chase scenes that have little to do with the story at hand. A handful of the action sequences shift to a first person perspective for the benefit of the 3D audience. They carry all the excitement of watching someone’s YouTube video of a theme park ride. Musical numbers are the film’s saving grace, and Helms is the unlikely hero. (In an especially puzzling decision, Efron and Swift are exempt from singing.) His song detailing the rise and fall of his commercial enterprise is a surprisingly mature moment, full of a weary ambivalence toward capitalism and destined to inspire more introspection than another unimaginative DeVito harangue.
A major reason for Dr. Seuss’ enduring popularity is his brevity – all of the really, really important life lessons can be conveyed in 50 pages or less. It’s not impossible for a movie to be as succinct as the good doctor’s playful parables, but in many ways the material is simply too slight to form the backbone of a feature-length film. In the impulse to make The Lorax a bigger, better, and louder experience fit for the multiplex, all sense of scale is lost. That’s how an elegant, touching story of responsibility and common sense becomes a clamorous delivery system for the emptiest of cinematic calories. Perhaps it’s more of a problem with the marketplace than the movie. Earnestness is good for books and stuff, but there’s a certain amount of whiz-bang hokum required to make people consent to a big screen sermon. You can decry the way it trivializes a message that doesn’t necessarily have to be an environmental one – “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot…” is a mantra that fits just about any cause – but ultimately The Lorax is a misfire because the medium goes too far in dictating the message.
“Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” is now playing in theaters nationwide.