REVIEW: Cluttered, Noisy Lorax Doesn't Speak for the Trees, or For Anyone Else
He is the Lorax, he speaks for the trees – or at least he would, if he could get a word in edgewise. Because Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, as directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda, is so cluttered -- with extra narrative, extra characters, extra everything -- that its famously mossy and bossy central figure barely figures into the plot. More a bowdlerization than an adaptation of the great Theodor Geisel’s somber plea for environmental preservation, The Lorax is so big, flashy and redundant that it courts precisely the kind of blind consumerism it’s supposed to be condemning. It doesn’t trust kids to sit still and pay attention for even a minute.
In the book, a young boy approaches the dark lair of the Once-ler, situated in the middle of a bare wasteland. The Once-ler spins a tale about what this godforsaken patch of land used to be like: It was dotted lavishly with Truffula Trees, their tufty heads looking like psychedelic dandelions and smelling of “butterfly milk.” This was a land populated by humming fish and bearlike creatures known as Bar-ba-Loots (“frisking about in their Bar-ba-Loot suits”), and guarded over by the stern, if noodgy, Lorax, who is especially protective of the area’s chief natural resource, those Truffula Trees. The Once-ler begins cutting down the trees for his own gain, initiating a destructive spiral that the book resolves only tentatively – with a single Truffula seed held out as a symbol of hope for the future.
Those simple but potent ingredients aren’t enough for this Lorax, which was adapted – maybe “mauled” is the better word – by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul. The boy who sets the whole story in motion is a pre-teener named Ted (voiced by Zac Efron), who lives in Thneedville, a town that’s completely made of plastic – air is pumped in by an evil and very short entrepreneur named Mr. O’Hare (Rob Riggle). Ted takes an interest in trees because the girl on whom he has a crush, Audrey (Taylor Swift), thinks they’re neat and wishes they weren’t all gone. So he approaches the lair of the reclusive Once-ler (Ed Helms), who spins the sad and sorry tale of the long-lost Truffula Trees, and of his encounter with the Lorax (Danny DeVito), who tried to stop their destruction before it was too late.
But wait, there’s more – much, much more. Ted has a mother who tries to convince him that the artificial trees of Thneedville are perfectly adequate, as well as a grandmother who secretly advises him otherwise. The Once-ler has a family of social-climbing boobs who persuade him to ax the Truffula forest, a touch that’s designed, maybe, to make the Once-ler more sympathetic, but what’s the point? The Once-ler wriggles his way into the good graces of the Bar-ba-Loots (who aren’t referred to by their right and proper name but who are treated as if they were simply garden-variety bears) by showering them with marshmallows. And so forth.
The great marvel of Dr. Seuss’ work – in addition to his noodly characters, silly-brilliant drawings and captivating rhyme schemes -- was its economy: Dr. Seuss’ books tell fairly complex and imaginative stories in a remarkably simple way. (Even One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish has a narrative, albeit one with a streak of Dada madness.) These books are never overpopulated – Seuss never, for example, threw in extra parental characters just to give his characters something to rebel against. Adolescent boys trying to impress girls? Please.
But the story Seuss tells in The Lorax is almost completely obscured here, buried beneath needless extra details. The look of the film nods adequately to certain Seussisms – the tops of those Truffula Trees do look pretty luxurious, like Troll-doll hair in unbelievable shades of magenta and citrus orange. Yet there’s so much to look at that almost nothing registers. The town of Thneedville is elaborate and plasticky-looking, populated largely by fat, lazy people. The Truffula wonderland is much prettier to look at, but it’s almost too much of a good thing. The creatures who populate it – like those humming fish, who spend a great deal of time bouncing around dry land on their flexible tails – may be cute, but they also seem like afterthoughts; there’s just too much business happening all around them. Even the Lorax himself – despite DeVito’s singular vocal charms – comes through as a blur in the midst of a hyperactive muddle.
When it comes to this mess, who’s left holding the Truffula-stuffed bag? Renaud was one of the directors (with Pierre Coffin) of what was, for my money, the best and most gleefully disreputable animated film of 2010, Despicable Me. That picture was relaxed and loopy; The Lorax is stiff and junked-up. The casual details that Seuss would drop so effortlessly are belabored here. For example, when the butterfly-milk scent of those Truffula tufts comes up in conversation, Ted and Audrey can’t let this magical true-fact pass without comment: “What does that even mean?” “I know, right?” they counter, compelled to show how hip they are to the idea that, you know, butterflies can’t actually produce milk. Thanks for that, masterminds behind Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. It saves me a lot of time feeling around for those really tiny butterfly nipples. I should have known Theodor Geisel made it all up.