As the title of this post indicates, I caved and saw The Lorax. Actually, caved isn’t the right word, because I always knew this was going to happen. I’ve been an enormous admirer of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) for as long as I’ve had memories, so much so that I even made him the subject of my undergraduate honors thesis. As terrible as the film adaptations have generally been, I’m always compelled to see them. And it isn’t just masochism, though it certainly feels like that sometimes. I’m fully aware that Hollywood’s adaptations of Seuss books have ranged from mediocre (Horton Hears a Who!) to wretched (The Cat in the Hat), but I maintain that these films have the potential to be good. A lot of critics blame the awfulness of these films on the impossibility of adapting a slim children’s book into a feature-length film, but there’s no reason that this couldn’t work in the right hands. Ted Geisel himself expanded his short children’s stories into 24-minute animated specials, and in each case the expansion actually enriched the original story. Moreover, there is something inherently compelling about the idea of seeing Geisel’s iconic images come to life in a cinematic context. So despite the mediocre reviews and horrid marketing campaign (more on this later), I did walk into The Lorax with as open a mind as possible. I didn’t expect to be pleased, but I was more than willing to be surprised. Now after seeing the film, I’m still sorting through my reaction. It certainly has its share of problems, some of which it shares with previous Seuss adaptations. But the film is fascinating, even in its shortcomings, in ways that put it slightly ahead of its immediate predecessors. The film ultimately doesn’t work, but its reasons for not working are as much a reflection on the nature of The Lorax as a story itself as they are a reflection on the challenges of making a contemporary Hollywood children’s film.
Before I even go into the film, it’s worth spending a little time reflecting on the book itself. It’s easy for those of us who grew up with the book not to notice this, but The Lorax is a very strange children’s book. Earlier Dr. Seuss books had heroes with big imaginations and ambitions, heroes who strove to remake the world into one of their fantasies. They faced opposition from stern, severe father figures who lacked imagination and attempted to suppress those fantastical flights of fancy. This dynamic accurately describes The Lorax too, but with a severe difference. Here, the imaginative hero has big ambitions that ultimately destroy the world, and the stern father figure rebukes the hero because he’s trying to stave off that destruction. Think back on it – who is the protagonist of this story? It’s not the title character. No, it’s the Once-ler – he’s the character who tells the story, who drives the action, and who appeals directly to the audience’s sympathies throughout. Yet from the start, he is a selfish, manipulative, entrepreneur, and his greed escalates until he finally transforms the world into a barren wasteland. As if this wasn’t bleak enough, we also learn at the end that he’s spent his last several decades isolated in his tower, stewing over his guilt as his buildings crumple around him. And just to make the character just-that-little-bit extra hard to sympathize with, Geisel doesn’t even show us the Once-ler’s face. The character is represented entirely by his arms, which keeps the story’s protagonist from even looking human.
And yet somehow the character still does feel extremely human, which is part of the reason that the book has endured so long despite it’s darkness. The Once-ler goes through a personal journey over the course of 60 illustrated pages, and while that journey is bleak, it’s powerful enough to resonate even with the children who don’t fully understand it. The Once-ler has many appealing character qualities, not the least of which is his ambitious imagination. And while he does destroy the world, he isn’t evil – he sympathizes with the animals he’s displacing, and he feels guilt when he watches them leave. But he rationalizes and rationalizes that guilt until finally, guilt is all he has left. It’s a powerful concept, and, I would argue, one that is just as much about Geisel’s own guilt as it is about the dangers of deforestation. Four years prior to the publication of The Lorax, Ted Geisel’s wife committed suicide, spurred largely by Ted’s affair with Audrey Stone (who he later married). Biographical speculation is always dangerous, but it’s hard not to see The Once-ler locked in his tower “worrying and worrying away” over the destruction he caused and not see Geisel worrying about his own role in his wife’s fatal spiral into depression. That’s not to say that the book only has a private biographical meaning, but it does help us make sense of the book as a broader apology from one generation to the next. The Once-ler stands in for a generation took what exactly what it wanted from life and didn’t look at the consequences until it was too late. With The Lorax, Geisel is apologizing to the next generation, and grimly informing his audience that the only way things can get “better” is if today’s children learn to be better than their parents.
That’s an awful lot for a filmmaking team to take on. Even if we push aside my biographical speculation, we still have with a story in which our protagonist turns the world into a barren wasteland and our title character is an irritating nag (who just happens to be right). Having said that, there are ways in which The Lorax is the Seuss book that most befits a feature-length adaptation. It has an epic scope that takes place over the course of decades, and it actually recalls Citizen Kane in the way it charts the life of a man who rises and falls through his own ambition. Geisel depicts the gradual decline of both the character and his environment remarkably effectively in such a short space, but the story could easily benefit from a fuller expansion. This would all be well and good if Hollywood was willing to make The Lorax as “My First Greek Tragedy” and embrace the darkness of the story. But there’s no way they could market a film like that in a post-Shrek era. Ultimately, the filmmakers have to take a story that has the arc of a Greek tragedy and turn it into something fun and upbeat. It’s a project that seems so impossible that it has to be interesting no matter how badly it turns out, right?
But here’s what’s fascinating about the finished film itself: the filmmakers have tried to both embrace the darkness AND keep things light-hearted. They have, on the one hand, created a film that mostly exists in a sunny world filled with cute animal antics, catchy songs, and a happy ending. But they also include segments full of corporate satire that is just as vicious as anything in Geisel’s original story, and they keep Lorax and Once-ler’s final confrontation startlingly bleak. These two poles don’t manage to co-exist coherently, but it’s remarkable that they manage to co-exist at all. The filmmakers have attempted to stave off the darkness of the story, not by softening it, but by surrounding the darkness in large swaths of lighthearted merrymaking. The logic seems to be that if the film compresses all of the bleak material into one small section, the audience won’t be overly bothered. This makes sense to a point, but it certainly seems more risky than it would be to simply eliminate the darkness all-together.
As it stands, the filmmakers have taken an interesting strategy, but it backfires on the film. For one thing, it leaves us with a narratively lopsided story. The film technically maintains the story arc of the book, from the Once-ler’s arrival in the pristine valley to the reveal of the last Truffula seed. But because the film is squeamish around the bleaker aspects of the story, it squeezes the bulk of this narrative into a single musical number. The entire middle section of the book – from the creation of the Once-ler’s first factory to his final confrontation with The Lorax – is conveyed through a montage/music video. When the montage begins, Truffula Valley is pristine, and the Once-ler is a decent-ish guy who’s just made a single bad decision. By the time we leave the montage, years seem to have passed, and the Once-ler is now corrupt, rich, and moments away from chopping down the last Truffula tree. Even for an audience that hasn’t read the book, this should seem strange. We have time for over a half hour of inconsequential pratfalls involving teddy bears and chipmunk fish, but we don’t have time to witness our formerly sympathetic protagonist’s moral corruption? Isn’t that supposed to be the plot of this movie? And when the Once-ler’s story is over and he’s passed on the last seed to the boy, we still have time to waste. We sit through a solid 15 minutes of the kid’s various adventures trying to plant the seed, as though the needless chase scenes that ensue are the real climax of the story.
To further take our attention away from any darkness, the film also gives us a much happier ending than that of the book (so SPOILER ALERT and all that). To an extent, this is justifiable. While we never actually see the child at the end of Geisel’s book planting the last Truffula seed, we understand that this is likely going to happen. So it doesn’t bother me that the film wants to depict that moment and milk it for its emotional payoff. The crowd gathering round to sing about the new tree, kumbaya though it may be, echos the ending of The Grinch nicely, and I even liked the moment where the Once-ler hears the crowd and breaks through his window. It’s more explicitly hopeful than the book, but it’s emotionally satisfying in a way that enhances the message without undermining it. This would be a fine place to end, but unfortunately, this still isn’t happy enough for the filmmakers. So we jump ahead a few years and see that Truffula trees have now been re-planted all over the valley. The Lorax even returns to give The Once-ler a hug and congratulate him on the good job he’s doing. Here, the film moves past a message of tentative hope and into a message of, “See, everything’s all better!” That message rings false in reality (we haven’t exactly fixed the environment yet), and it rings false in the context of the film’s story. The Once-ler and his kind did tragically destroy the world, and to end on a note of “it’s fixed!” undermines the severity of those bad decisions.
Yet for all the film’s attempts to balance out the gloominess with smiles, there are aspects of the film that keep the book’s power. The film doesn’t get dark frequently, but when it does, it pulls no punches. The Once-ler’s corruption montage, for example, hits about every satirical target from Geisel’s story and then some. The Once-ler becomes the embodiment of every hypocritical corporate spokesman of the past decade, and the film is particularly savvy about the Once-ler’s PR spin for his destructive practices. Ironically in fact, the film even seems to satirize its own marketing strategy. It’s no secret that Universal has turned The Lorax into a marketing shill over the past several months – we’ve seen the character whored out to sell everything from iHop pancakes Mazda SUVs. Those of us who grew up with the story have been unsurprisingly outraged, as the SUVs in particular seem to go against every environmental message that The Lorax stands for:
But what’s strange is that the film seems to agree with us. At one point, for example, the Once-ler justifies his actions by noting that “a portion of proceeds goes to charity,” a line that recalls Mazda’s own paltry donations to school reading programs as justification for using The Lorax to invade elementary schools and push SUVs on children. At another point in the montage, the Once-ler uses a photoshopped picture of the Lorax to advertise “Lorax-approved Thneeds,” a move that recalls Mazda’s own disingenuous “Truffula Seal of Approval” in their SUV commercials. Studio filmmaking involves so many competing artistic and corporate interests that it’s not surprising when the film and the marketing aren’t completely in-synch. But I can’t think of another instance in which a film, coincidentally or not, has attacked its own marketing campaign with such vicious specificity.
And satire aside, the film also maintains the raw power of that final showdown between the Onceler and the Lorax. The scene arrives abruptly, but it’s devastating nevertheless. While the filmmakers don’t retain any of the book’s verse dialogue, they do paraphrase the content faithfully, and the Once-ler’s indignant “I haven’t done anything illegal!” defense is a particularly nice dig at modern corporate ethos. And however much they try to hide the sequence between catchy musical numbers, the filmmakers do understand its visceral iconic power. The Onceler’s near-demonic rant atop his balcony, the image of a single tree falling in a vast wasteland, and the Lorax’s grim expression as he ascends out of the wreckage are all hauntingly captured. The sequence also works so well because it allows the music to carry a large portion of the emotional weight. Composer John Powell spends most of the movie busy with cheesily catchy musical numbers and light-hearted Mickey-Mousing, but in this sequence he lets the full tragedy of the story rip without any restraint. The near-biblical choir gives the sequence mournful gravity, and the brass blast that cuts off the Onceler’s rant as the last tree falls is particularly gut-wrenching. The sequence succeeds where the rest of the film fails in making all of this loss feel real.
Granted, the film does everything it can to rush right back into light-hearted territory when the sequence is over (it even manages to make the Onceler’s explanation of his decades spent fretting over the “Unless” monument seem like a light-hearted aside). But when all is said and done, I suspect that these intensely bleak scenes will linger far longer than the fluffiness that surrounds them. They’re rare moments that enhance the affective power of Geisel’s book, and they transcend the needless filler that makes up the rest of the film. It is perhaps for this reason that I have a hard time fully condemning the movie. I can’t actually say that it’s a good film, because as a whole, it’s not. The film has all of the market-research-driven irritations that make up so many non-Pixar animated films, and it constantly sacrifices story for crowd-pleasing fluff. But it also contains a precious few genuinely moving standalone sequences that nearly attain greatness. I’m sure this is in part due to a talented team of filmmakers getting away with the little art they can slip in to a formulaic studio film, but much of that credit also belongs to Dr. Seuss himself. With The Lorax, he created a story so moving and so compelling that it’s even managed to survive a trip through Hollywood’s cookie-cutter factory with some of its original power left intact.