'The Lorax': Natural lyricism replaced with synthetic soul

"The Lorax" could have been so much more than a Technicolor sneeze. SOURCE UNIVERSAL PICTURES
March 12, 2012

My imagined dialogue when watching "The Lorax" during one of many sold-out screenings at the Movies at Midway this weekend:

Young child: Mommy, who is the man who was the voice of the Lorax?

Mommy: Why that was an actor by the name of Danny DeVito, dear.

Young child: Can we see something else with him? I like him. He was funny.

Mommy: Sure. Let's see ... he was most recently in a television show called "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." Well, that sounds like a family-friendly show! And Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love! I'll go get a few seasons and you can watch it!

Anyone who has seen even one episode of the long-running, ribald FX show knows this scenario would not end well, but it helped pass the time while I was sitting through the technicolor sneeze known as "The Lorax."

The latest animated take on a Dr. Seuss book, "The Lorax" looks like the most expensive Skittles commercial ever created. It's not that the candy is featured - or even mentioned - but it manages to cough up rainbows in every frame, and, despite its timely message, the impression it leaves is just as fleeting.

After rereading the book with my children before viewing the film, I realized just how somber and sobering the tale was. It was not a hopeless story, but like some of the best children's literature, it did not shy away from some of the darker shades of life's palette while still keeping the swirling Seussian wordplay intact.

While I realize that might make the film less marketable, it certainly could have done without the painfully labored song-and-dance filler that occupies much of "The Lorax's" runtime. Gone is the lyrical quality of its origin, now filled with more stuffing than a plush Grinch doll. The environmental message is still a sound one, but the film felt like less than an homage (like the bouncy "Horton Hears a Who") and more like an opportunistic obligation.

It's strange, too, because it is from the same creative team as "Horton," including writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul. The book's simple tale is now bloated with backstory and padded with plotting. We are now in a plasticine paradise known as Thneedville. There's not an ounce of natural beauty to be found; even the air is bottled and purchased as residents happily scurry about and consume gluttonously inside its towering iron walls. But the search is on to rescue the tiniest trace of organic plant life left.

If it sounds strikingly familiar, it is. But I liked it better when it was called "Wall*E."

In this human terrarium we meet young Ted (voiced by Zac Efron), who stumbles upon his environmental passion rather accidentally - in order to impress artistic free spirit Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift). It's not the strongest nail to hang a story from, but it's slightly more stable than the hollow padding that occupied the live-action "Cat in the Hat."

All the vocal talent is as candy-coated as its setting: sweet and sunny, but adding nothing substantial. Kudos to DeVito, though, for dialing it back as the Wilford-Brimley-shaped jellybean known as the Lorax. At least he learned from the live-action mistakes of Jim Carrey in the "The Grinch" and Mike Meyers as The Cat in the Hat.

Ultimately, "The Lorax" is perfectly acceptable family fare, and its Earth-loving lesson is valuable and timely. But when considering the source, it could have been so much more. And in its quest to become a singing, dancing, whirlwind celebration, it lost its natural lyricism and replaced it with a synthetic soul.

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