Following mediocre adaptations of The Grinch and Horton Hears a Who and an truly unwatchable take on The Cat in the Hat, calling The Lorax the best adaptation of Theodor Geisel’s work in recent years might be to damn it with faint praise. In this case, such a laudatory note holds a lot of weight since The Lorax will likely cast a magical spell on all who see it, young and old alike. For the first time in a long time, a filmmaker has captured the philosophical essence and good will at the centre of a Dr. Seuss book. It feels really great to say that again.
Based on Seuss’ most outwardly political kids book (loosely adapted, of course, since a 25 page rhyming picture book doesn’t exactly seem like the most cinematic thing to follow to the letter for 90 minutes), the film tells the story of Ted (voiced by Zac Efron), a young man living in Thneedville, a town made entirely out of plastic and laid out with convenience in mind. In a Spaceballs like twist, the air is so polluted that the most powerful man in town, Mr. O’ Hare (Rob Riggle) sells people bottled and canned air.
The pollution and lack of clean air is caused by a complete lack of trees, which were cut down years ago by an inventor living outside of town called The Once-ler (Ed Helms). When Ted ventures out of town to find out how to secure a tree for an artistic minded girl he’s sweet on (Taylor Swift), The Once-ler regales him with the tale of how he chopped down all the trees in the forest, much to the chagrin and disappointment of The Lorax (Danny DeVito), a mythical creature with some rockin’ facial hair that speaks on behalf of the trees.
Despicable Me director Chris Renaud was definitely the right choice for this material. The film’s intricate plotting (jumping back and forth between Thneedville and the story of The Lorax) also incorporates musical numbers that don’t detract from the story. While the songs are clearly catering to the youngsters in the audience, they still manage to give the adults some chuckles. Renaud finds the sweet spot between keeping the attention of kids and adults while balancing a hard to pull of script.
Credit also belongs to the film’s writers, Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, who take Seuss’ most satirical and bittersweet book and make it into mainstream entertainment that never descends into preachiness (save for one groan worthy lines in the last few minutes) or dampens the impact of the story’s message. As a book, The Lorax never carried a subtle message. It was always up front about the protection of forests and the environment. Similarly, the film doesn’t deal in subtleties outside of a few clever modern references and some killer sight gags, but the message feels just as fresh now (and probably more vitally important) than it did when the story was first published.
Visually, Renaud and his French animation crew have outdone even their strong debut feature. Never before have the colours of a Seuss book been this vibrant and fully realized. The frame fills with spectacle that doesn’t succumb like many modern animated films to fast cuts designed to create the illusion of movement when there isn’t any. The 3-D option adds a little to the movie at times, but this is probably best viewed flat to properly enjoy the vividness of it all.
Admittedly, the actual story of The Lorax and The Once-ler feels far more entertaining than the stuff involving Ted and his family, but the film seems to know that. It’s hard not to well up during some of the more heartfelt moments of The Lorax, especially when DeVito’s character realizes he’s been had. While DeVito and Helms are easily the best of the voice cast, Riggle also has some killer lines and holds things down in the present timeline with his midget in a suit routine. Also on hand, all too briefly is Betty White as Ted’s grandmother in a performance perfectly matched to her somewhat creepy, but genuinely sweet character.
Renaud, his cast, and crew have made the first film that feels worthy of the good doctor’s name. Sure, there are a couple of pop culture references (including a killer call back to Groundhog Day), but in a story that was designed to be topical when it was first written, it feels allowable. Most importantly of all, the perfect sentiment is in place. Look for this one to stick around come next Oscar season as a possible nominee for Best Animated Film.