By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
His name is The Lorax and he speaks for the tree huggers, against a conniving industrialist exploiting natural resources in the name of capitalism.
Just wait until conservatives who complained The Muppets spread liberal rhetoric to children by making an oil baron the bad guy get a load of this.
Protecting the environment was a different kettle of Humming-Fish in 1971 when Dr. Seuss published The Lorax. Not a political football but a social conscience kind of thing. What Dr. Seuss offered was a child's-eye look at the issue, the threat of industrialization on cute Brown Bar-ba-loots when all Truffula trees are gone. The book was only 54 pages, mostly illustrated, and therefore suited to 1972's half-hour cartoon version.
Making a movie of The Lorax begs for embellishment, padding the running time to a length moviegoers are willing to pay for. The Lorax is a green movie — as in the color of money — that winds up making Dr. Seuss' simplicity into a theme park ride blueprint with a preachy message.
The essentials remain fairly intact. A boy named Ted (voice of Zac Efron) is curious about what lies outside the boundaries of his hometown Thneedville. He discovers a natural wonderland where fish sing, plush bears tumble and Truffula trees sway in the breeze (although not in the static background; this is animation on the cheap). He meets the Once-ler (Ed Helms), a melancholy recluse with a flashback story to tell.
The Once-ler once was a young man like Ted, and the inventor of the Thneed, an all-purpose something or other knitted from Truffula blooms. The Once-ler got greedy, chopping down all the Truffula trees to keep up with demand for Thneeds, manufactured in smoke-belching factories. The Lorax (Danny DeVito) spoke up for the trees but the Once-ler didn't listen. He regrets that, giving Ted the last Truffula seed to plant, in hopes of restoring the environment.
Sweet story but where's the hook, the romantic interest and solidly defined villain? Where's the thrilling chase, and silly side characters? Co-directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda take care of that, enabling a bit of celebrity voice casting that's easy to sell in ads. Even with its optimism there is now a cloud of cynicism in The Lorax, as thick as that factory smoke.
Now Ted's quest isn't based on newfound environmentalism but to impress a girl, Audrey, voiced by Taylor Swift, a celebrity so sugary that Dr. Seuss might have drawn her. Added to the mix is Mr. O'Hare (Rob Riggle), a diminutive capitalist who doesn't want trees growing because they generate oxygen, and he has a tidy business selling bottled fresh air. The obligatory chase includes Ted's grandma on a motorcycle, with Betty White doing her Betty White thing.
There is nice stuff found in The Lorax — Thneedville's artificial nature is inspired — and bad, like the original songs nobody will be humming when they leave the theater. But good intentions don't trump mediocre filmmaking. If that makes me a Grinch, so be it.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.