“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.”
― Dr. Seuss, The Lorax
It was nearly thirty years ago when beloved children’s story author Theodor Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as the master of whimsical rhyme, Dr. Seuss, published what was to become one of his most beloved and enduring works: The Lorax – the tale of the Lorax who speaks for the trees, and the Once-ler the embodiment of greed. An allegory that presents the struggle between unchecked industry, as represented by the Once-ler (a faceless figure), and an environment in need of defending, as represented by the Lorax.
Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment are now bringing the fable to the big screen as the animated adventure Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax with a voice cast that includes: Danny DeVito as the Lorax, Ed Helms as the Once-ler, Zac Efron as Ted (the idealistic youth who searches for the Lorax), Taylor Swift as Audrey (the girl of Ted’s dreams), Rob Riggle as financial king O’Hare, and Betty White as Ted’s Grammy Norma.
We had the opportunity to sit down with the film’s producer Christopher Meledandri (Horton Hears a Who!) in a visit to the edit bay as he completed post-production on the film to talk about his approach in adapting Geisel’s lasting archetypal tale. The film version follows Ted’s journey as he searches for the one thing that will enable him to win the affection of Audrey: a real life tree (for they have become a thing of legend in the town the kids grew up in). To find it he must approach the mysterious Once-ler (who is responsible for the loss of the trees) and discover the story of the Lorax, the grumpy (but cuddly) creature who fights to protect the natural world.
“The challenge is that the stories tend to be short,” Meledandri explains. “So we’ve looked at what’s happened before page one and what happens in between the pages. For example, when you look at the very first page of the book, what you see is the town that the boy lives in. So that for us became kind of a clue, which is to say, we asked ourselves: ‘what’s that town like? What was this boy’s experience before he decided to go out and look for the Once-ler and the Lorax?’ So we start the movie earlier than the book starts, and explore what this town is like and what triggered this journey. So we’re inventing, but we’re inventing with the story at its centerpiece.”
During our time with the producer we were able to screen sections of the film which were taken directly from the source material and others that were created from the imagined version of the world outside the lines of prose. The core idea of expressing the tragic consequences of greed remains intact, with the addition of some characters and plotpoints that will serve to contemporize the tale. Without giving too much away – there is a business presented in the film that will resonate with a 2012 audience and yet is in line with Seuss’ original warning message.
Meledandri’s passion for Geisel’s work, as well as his commitment to communicate its essence, comes through in his speech as well as the items that fill his work space: the original book adorned with color coded tabs for his repeated reference, the 3D printed statuette of the Lorax himself that reminds the producer of Seuss’ hand drawn illustrations and the colorful artwork that sets the tone for the aesthetic portion of this cinematic endeavor.
One of the inherent challenges of The Lorax was the creation of a cohesive film out of two parallel storylines: one set in the past and one in the present.
“We found that when you get stuck, a lot of the answers to the problems that you face are in the book,” Meledandri says. “Whether it’s in the book itself or in the writings that detail what Geisel was thinking about at the time he was writing the book, there are a lot of answers that he gives you. I know it sounds very obvious, but we frequently find ourselves forgetting that and then spending five weeks wrestling over a problem, only to go back to the material itself and find the answer.”
Meledandri adds that in addition to the text, Audrey Geisel (Theodor Seuss Geisel’s widow) served as a valuable resource throughout the production. The producer recalls that, ultimately, it was maintaining the fundamentals of Geisel’s work that was the key to effectively telling the story of the Lorax.
“There is a wonderful balance in this between character and theme,” he says. “And ultimately, even though we’re dealing with subject matter that can get sad, and at times the movie does get sad, the personality becomes the source of the comedy. Because it’s very much character-based comedy as opposed to situation-based comedy.”
“I think one of the places where we took the most liberty was with the notion of what is kicking this whole story into gear,” Meledandri elaborates. “And one of the things we’ve done in looking at this town is we’ve created a town and a world where we thought there was a sense of relevance but also of fun. Because there’s nothing natural in that world. Ted comes from a world where people are extremely happy living in what is almost like a Las Vegas existence, and the people who live in that town are actually not aware that they’ve walled themselves off from the devastation around them.”
Devastation caused by the once human Once-ler’s ambition gone astray. In his attempts to create a successful product he lets avarice overtake him and ends up destroying the very thing that was nourishing him — the forest. In so doing he becomes a being whose fondest wish is to atone for his past – via the lessons he has to teach young Ted.
The film has strayed from the original book as well as the previous iterations of The Lorax with the creation of a personified Once-ler (who in Seuss’ tale is only seen as arms and eyes). With the addition of his back-story, which includes a glimpse into the family he emerged from, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax becomes slightly more centered on the tale of the Once-ler as a character rather than as an archetype that represents an imbalanced industrial mindset.
“By preserving the character as arms and eyes in the present-day portion it protects the original depiction but within the movie the character becomes more present,” the producer says. “You’re spending eighty-five minutes with him in a primary role. But we honor the core of what Geisel intended. The arc of the story is that he enters the story with fairly straightforward intentions, he wants to create this business. And then as the success sets in he’s transformed and he looses touch with the person he used to be and ultimately ends up in the place where we find him in the beginning of the movie. Which is a character who may not even know it himself, but clearly wants remediation.”
The design team felt that they had license to reinterpret the standard visual template that so often accompanies a Dr. Seuss depiction in that the book itself utilized a fresh visual language – one that included a unique color palette and human characters who were less distinctly “Seussian.” That freedom lent itself to the introduction of characters that exist solely in the universe of the film – characters that the production hopes will become as cherished as the fantastical parable itself.
Take a look inside the expansive world of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax with the following featurette:
Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax opens in theaters on March 2nd.
You can like The Lorax on Facebook and visit the official website for more of the mustache, adventures and bears, oh my!
Follow me on twitter @JrothC