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Seuss’ ‘The Lorax’ skips laughs for political message

POSTED: March 1, 2012 12:30 a.m.
/AP Photo/Universal Pictures

Animated character Lorax, voiced by Danny Devito, center, stands with stands with the Bar-ba-loots, Swomee-Swans and Humming-Fish in a scene from "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax."

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A few months ago, the show “Follow the Money” on the Fox Business Channel took aim at “The Muppets” movie. The anchors and some “expert” condemned “liberal Hollywood” for “depicting a successful businessman as evil.”

I couldn’t understand why a financial-themed show was talking about the ideological content of a movie in the first place, or why they were taking seriously a character who is as much of a caricature as Fozzie or Gonzo. 

The broadcast provoked a backlash. Social media volleys were fired for about a week, then we all moved on.

That little skirmish is probably nothing compared to the reactions “The Lorax” will provoke.

Theodore Geisel’s Dr. Seuss books offer a treasure trove of delicious language. Who else could invent Bar-ba-loot suits, seasick crocodiles or Yertle the Turle? What other children’s author has ever turned a phrase as eloquent and encouraging as this one, from “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”? “Out there things happen, and frequently do ... To people as brainy and footsy as you. And when things start to happen, don’t worry, don’t stew. Just go right along, you’ll start happening too!”

Like nearly all children’s authors, Geisel tried to instruct as he entertained. His most widely beloved books build children’s self-esteem and celebrate individualism.

Geisel occasionally, though, offered unapologetically political messages. “The Lorax” is one of his political books. It should come as no surprise, then, that the movie is also polemical. 

As entertainment, “The Lorax” is good but not great. The animation is beautiful, but the 3D adds nothing significant and isn’t worth the price. The story dashes along briskly and holds children’s attention, though it isn’t very funny. Few of the jokes spark big laughs, and fewer stay with you after the film.

My biggest complaint is that we’re not treated to much of Geisel’s wonderful language. The movie also veers away from the text in numerous ways, which is predictable when expanding a 72-page picture book into a feature-length movie. 

The basic story of the Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms) cutting down all the Truffula trees in order to manufacture his Thneeds, ignoring the pleas of the Lorax (Danny Devito) all the while, is still there and told in flashbacks, á la the book. 

However, the writers made the Once-ler’s family into stereotypical rednecks (the Once-ler doesn’t speak with a Southern accent but his idiotic, greedy relatives do?) and added a present tense story. 

Ted (Zac Efron) goes searching for the Once-ler because he has a crush on an older girl named Audrey (Taylor Swift), who wants more than anything to see a real tree. There are none left in their plastic, consumerism-gone-crazy town of Thneedville.

The tyrannical mogul Mr. O’Hare (Rob Riggle), who made his fortune selling bottled air, spies Ted sneaking out of Thneedville’s steel walls and tries to stop Ted and Audrey’s quest to bring a real tree into the city. Trees make clean air for free and therefore threaten O’Hare’s bottom line. 

These embellishments don’t improve the quality of the story, but they do retain the book’s core message. Which brings us back to the movie’s politics.

Neither the book nor the movie of “The Lorax” is anti-capitalist. The Lorax opposes business practices that are environmentally unsustainable and harmful to both humans and wildlife. Those are hardly radical ideas, but in 2012 America, when every little statement draws an overreaction by one side or the other, these have been deemed liberal ideals and the seeds of eco-terrorism.

“The Lorax” is undeniably a piece of agitprop, a call to arms for anyone who cares about the environment. It will assuredly irritate or offend some viewers.

But let’s all keep in mind that we live in the age of mountaintop removal, fracking, genetically-modified organisms and dramatic rises in corporate surveillance. You may condemn “The Lorax” for its propaganda, but it’s hard to argue that it’s irrelevant.

Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.



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