The Lorax may be a movie with a message, but it's not necessarily a bad one, and the film does a good job of conveying it in an at times moving, at times thought-provoking, way.
Universal's 3D feature film adaption of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax is actually the second time the beloved writer's story has been brought to the screen - the first time being an animated short that premiered on TV back in 1972. In that 40-year span between Lorax adaptations, the issue of environmental preservation has continued to rage, and so the tale is (unfortunately) as relevant today as it was decades ago.
But is a 3D movie rife with musical numbers, slapstick comedy and a "hip" modern edge really the best delivery system for a message to kids about environmental responsibility? Or is the presentation of the message at odds with the message itself?
In this expanded take on Dr. Seuss' tale we meet Ted (voice of Zac Efron), a resident of "Thneed-Ville," an encapsulated city of complete artifice, where even the "trees" are mechanical, and fresh air is a commodity sold by diminutive tycoon, Mr. O'Hare (voice of Rob Riggle). Ted likes a girl named Audrey (voice of Taylor Swift) and Audrey wants nothing more than to see a real, live Truffula Tree, and Ted wants nothing more than to be the man who brings it to her. On advice from his Grandma Norma (voice of Betty White), Ted does the unthinkable: he ventures out of the mechanical bubble that is Thneed-Ville into the wastelands to seek out "The Once-ler," a mysterious figure who Grandma Norma claims is the only man who knows what happened to the trees.
Ted tracks down the Once-ler (voice of Ed Helms) - a grungy shut-in with a few screws loose - and manages to get him to tell the tale of his younger years as a would-be entrepreneur, who came to the valley to harvest Truffula Tree tufts (the furry top of the tree) for an all-purpose invention called a "Thneed" (which looks hilariously like a smaller version the Snuggie). When the young Once-ler topples his first tree, he brings forth The Lorax (voice of Danny DeVito), a guardian spirit of the forest who warns the Once-ler that his desecration of the tree will have grave consequences.
At first the Once-ler heeds the warning, but when the Thneed miraculously becomes a hit, the high-demand and ample profits give the Once-ler all the reason he needs to harvest the Truffula Trees nonstop. As Ted listens to the tale of the Once-ler's eventual downfall, he quickly realizes that his quest to find a tree may have more importance than simply landing him the girl he likes.
The Lorax is a strange mix of (sometimes conflicting) ideas and elements, but it ultimately works as a solid animated feature, which offers a positive message for the juice box crowd to take home. The film starts off looking like any other big-budget animated feature cooked up at a major studio, with kooky cartoon characters, frantic onscreen action to hold the kids' easily-diverted attention, high-production musical numbers and a toned-down, demographically-friendly version of Dr. Seuss' often strange imagination. It's around the middle of the film that the gears shift, and we get into the more adult (and potentially politically-divisive) ruminations on Randian principles of big-business weighed against environmental ethics - with a song titled "How Bad Can I Be?" offering a child-palatable rundown of those conflicting views, which have been debated in socio-political discourse for decades now.
For those worried about the film pushing a political agenda: Dr. Seuss intended the story to be one of environmental awareness, so it's an unavoidable part of the film's DNA. The movie stays grounded in its view of the Once-ler and his mistakes; he's not depicted as a monster, just a misguided guy thinking only of the short-term. The final third of the film wisely invests more effort into preaching environmental responsibility on a personal level, than it does condemning big business or pushing a larger environmental political agenda. If you're ok with your kids wanting to help plant trees and/or keep their neighborhood clean, then The Lorax is no threat to your values or politics.
Visually, The Lorax is a pretty spectacular piece of 3D entertainment. The colors or vibrant and the animation style pays nice homage to the illustrations of Dr. Seuss. If there is one design flaw to speak of, it is the younger version of the Once-ler, who looks like a composite of just about everything and anything market research said a younger demographic responds to in a character. He's a hipster/rocker/bohemian/nerd, and looks so out of place in a Seussian world that it's a little distracting. Other than that though, the film is pure eye candy.
As stated, The Lorax may be a movie with a message, but it's not necessarily a bad one, and the film does a good job of conveying it in an at times moving, at times thought-provoking, way. The fact that it indulges in studio-sanctioned silliness when not being poignant and pointed was a minus for me; but maybe bells and whistles are what's needed to keep the kids interested long enough to get the lesson.
The Lorax is now playing in 2D and 3D theaters. It is Rated PG for brief mild language.