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As I left the screening of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, I paused behind a mother and her young daughter. “What did you think?” the mother asked. “I loved it!” the girl chirped. “You did? I only sort of liked it. Why did you love it?” her mother inquired. After a long pause, the child said, “Um. I forget.”
And so all my fears about the adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic were realized, because, sadly, the little girl is right: The Lorax is roughly as cotton-candy fluffy as the tips of its Truffula trees.
Like so many others, I grew up reading Dr. Seuss’ books, whose whimsical illustrations, imaginative creatures and underlying lessons at times reached quasi-Roald Dahl levels of darkness. Specifically, The Lorax‘s lesson was not always a shiny happy one; it underscored the ills of industrialization and the dangers of a lack of environmental consciousness. The fable’s message was apropos in 1971, but is more powerful than ever today. In that vein, reimagining the story for a new generation isn’t just valid, it’s necessary.
In execution, though, The Lorax is lacking. As a kid, the book completely wrecked me, making me desperate to right society’s wrongs, to be more aware of my surroundings. I wanted to speak for the trees like The Lorax — Seuss’ bleak images of a world without nature were burned into my brain. With this adaptation, we’re given a more fleshed out story between Seuss’ lines, but it’s filled with silly excuses for musical numbers and pandering wide-eyed forest creatures practically begging for an “awww” moment.
The motivation behind the plight of young protagonist Ted (voiced by Zac Efron) is to win the affections of neighbor Audrey (Taylor Swift). That plot point, in itself, sets a disingenuous tone. A resident of Thneedville, an entirely plastic town run by evil mogul Mr. O’Hare (Rob Riggle), Audrey dreams of the mythical Truffula trees, and claims she’d marry the first man who brings her one. Ted, smitten, is all too happy to break free of Thneedville’s walls in pursuit. He finds The Once-ler (Ed Helms), an ostracized hermit who regales Ted with the story of his interactions with The Lorax (Danny DeVito), and his fall from grace after cutting down every last Truffula tree to make fashionable Thneeds for the townspeople.
Of most frustrating note: The dialogue is groan-worthy, and at times painfully unfunny. Most of the un-zingers come from Ted’s mom (Jenny Slate), who at one point jokes to O’Hare and his henchmen that they can “go ahead and adopt” Ted. O’Hare’s attempts to meld dictator-like terror with Napoleonic goofiness fall flat. While threatening Ted, he barks, “I’m Frankenstein’s head on a spider’s body!” and it’s as though all the air is sucked out of the room. I was in a theater full of under-8-year-olds and not one of them made a peep. Even the Once-ler, during one of his youthful flashbacks, wields clunky lines. As The Lorax attempts to wake him, he groans, “Sleeping is the body’s way of telling other people to go away.” Keeping in line with the witty banter of Seuss’ melodic writing isn’t quite on this movie’s “to do” list.
It’s not all bad, though, especially when we’re reminded of the jumbled plot of last year’s Happy Feet 2. Where that film failed even to understand (or communicate) its core message, The Lorax remains on the straight and narrow. There’s no confusion here, and I admittedly teared up when Seuss’ iconic lines were spoken: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” DeVito as The Lorax also gets a few good ones in, including, “A tree falls the way it leans. Be careful which way you lean.” Betty White also shines as Ted’s Grammy Norma, managing to elevate the dialogue with her spitfire delivery and joyful attitude.
As far as the look of the movie, Seuss’ images are boosted into Technicolor. The Once-ler’s flashbacks include some beautiful shots of a lush world populated by pink-, orange- and yellow-topped Truffula trees, but the 3D is unnecessary to aid the plot points. In fact, two of the film’s main action sequences — one involving a bed floating down treacherous river rapids, and another based around a car and scooter chase — gave me a “Tintin did it better” feeling. Like the writing between Seuss’ lines, the painted layers on top of his trademark images don’t quite deliver.
Although it’s admirable that Seuss’ message is being resurrected at a critical time, I’m not entirely certain the good Doctor would find this new adaptation faultless — compounded by the fact that its release date is something of a gift to him (March 2 is his birthday). I longed for the film to embrace its dark edges and resurrect that feeling in my gut that I had as a kid. I wanted to see that same fire burning in the audience’s eyes as we shuffled out of the theater. Instead, I fear that all the flashy filler in between will cause them — as the little girl in front of me stated — to forget the message entirely.
Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax opens today nationwide.