“I am the Geisel! Everyone speaks for me!” There’s a good reason you’re only seeing Dr. Seuss movies now that he’s dead. The crusty old bugger was very particular about how his stories were used. And so we have The Lorax, the latest interpretation of his short works blown up into a feature-length film.
The problem with turning these stories into features is that there’s not enough content, and so the proceedings must be padded out. This can be disastrous, as in The Cat in the Hat and particularly How The Grinch Stole Christmas, where the pure-of-heart Whos were twisted into service to make the Grinch a victim. Horton Hears A Who! worked by preserving the essential character of Horton and his Who pals, and padding mostly through entertaining comic bits.
But Geisel’s genius was largely that he told simple stories based on the purest of truths. Horton and his fidelity, the power of “something more” in The Grinch, the status seeking Sneetches, the stubborn Zaxs—they all run the risk of being corrupted by “nuance”. I can’t even watch the live action Grinch, it’s such a perversion of the original.
It’s probably not fair to say that Seuss was never making a political statement. It’s difficult to imagine that The Butter Battle Book, published in 1984, isn’t about the arms race. But if it is, it’s a terrible, nihilistic story where the slavery of Communism is no different from a free-market society. As a story of people fighting to utter annihilation over a trivial difference, however, it holds up very well indeed.
“A person’s a person no matter how small” makes a great slogan for pro-life—but Geisel got lawyery when a group tried to use it that way. And if Thidwick, The Big-Hearted Moose isn’t a story about the Occupy movement, I don’t know what is. (I don’t care if it was written 60 years ago.)
The point of all this being that, if you want to make a good Dr. Seuss movie, stay far away from any political statement and focus heavily on the characters—the depiction of human nature.
Which brings us roundabout to The Lorax, which takes a very faithful adaptation of an uncharacteristically soft-headed Geisel book, and wraps it thick in a bizarre anti-consumerist, wake-up-sheeple dystopia.
The Lorax speaks for the trees, y’see. He’s a mystical character and that’s what he does. We don’t know by what authority he does this, but he does, and that’s about the extent of his power. Again, even as not one of Seuss’s stronger stories, what’s presented is very reasonable: In a landscape bereft of trees, maybe it’s not a good idea cut the few trees you have down.
The movie double-downs on this: The trees don’t even need to be cut down. Their tufts can be harvested to make the prized thneeds that give the Once-ler his wealth. So, the Once-ler, a largely sympathetic character, gets so greedy he gives the okay to kill his golden goose.
Not that this doesn’t happen from time-to-time, but it tends to be a tragedy-of-the-commons thing more than a big business thing. I’m pretty sure the lumber industry plants trees like crazy. Big agriculture farms re-fertilize the soil. Etc.
This strained tale would probably be a little too one-sided to ever be very good, but the producers wrapped the story in a bizarre, Wall-E-esque dystopia, where the Once-ler has robbed the world of its clean air, and another character (looking like Edna Mole from The Incredibles) became successful selling people clean air, ultimately encasing the entire city of Thneedville in a protective dome.
This uber-plot goes completely off the rails. The movie is actually the story of a boy who wants to find one of these truffula trees to impress a girl, and in doing so he escapes his Logan’s Run-esque world and discovers the Once-ler and the story of the Lorax.
Never explained is how the citizens of Thneedville came to be okay with this guy closing their city up and having apparently limitless power over things. There’s no government to speak of, so this is all an evil corporatocracy in which every one seems happy and satisfied—except of course they’re not really.
This is an aspect of anti-bourgeois evangelism that’s difficult to overlook. If Wall-E is a warning or a parody of what we might become, The Lorax is a condemnation of what we are. We only think we’re happy or are forced to pretend we’re happy because of peer pressure or something.
This isn’t a child’s movie, made by parents, so much as a teenage fantasy about what things are really like, man.
It’s clunky, too. The music is occasionally awful (which is weird, because John Powell is typically quite good, having done Chicken Run, Evolution, Kung Fu Panda and dozens more). It occasionally makes you go “Huhhh?” Betty freakin’ White plays the freakin’ fesity grandmother. Jenny Slate, as the protagonist’s mother, inexplicably seems Jewish. (I can’t remember why I think that, whether she affected a Yiddish or what it was, but it seemed tired.)
The animation is okay. There are some good extrapolations on Seussian visual motifs.
The Barbarienne liked it. It was colorful and there was popcorn.
But they missed the point. And, in fairness, so did Dr. Seuss. Had they not put propaganda over telling a story, The Lorax would be a classic.
The real story should have been the Once-ler’s. His redemption. In the book and movie, the Once-ler holds on to the last Truffler seed, and lives in regret—and he never takes a single step to repair what he’s done. But why? Well, that’s the propaganda part: The kids have to do it. And the kids never say “Do it your own damn self, you made this mess in the first place.”
And…hey, then the Once-ler could’ve kept his thneed business going and there’d be more tuffler trees than ever and—well, crap, there goes the narrative. Of course, it’d be a better story.
So I started out talking about the dangers of extending Dr. Seuss stories and ended up saying it’d have been an improvement if they did just that, only differently.
Hey, if the movie doesn’t have to make sense, neither do I.