I’ll never forget reading The Lorax for the very first time. It was unlike any other Dr. Seuss story that I’d ever experienced. It had such an unusually dark tone and gut-wrenching moments, and the Lorax himself disappearing at the end of the story, uncertain as to whether he would return, left me an incredibly chilled and unsettled 8-year-old. I loved it so much that it made it’s way into my teenhood, during which I discovered the original TV short from 1972 that greatly exemplified on the book. Then when I reached the age of 16/17, I really began to see that The Lorax had many smart subtleties that made it more than just a story about saving the trees, and it’s this thought that Seuss put into it that encourages me to regard it as one of the greatest pieces of literature of all time.
When the film adaptation of The Lorax by Illumination Entertainment came out in 2012, my 14-year-old self was kind of excited to see it. But in all fairness, the warning signs were all in the trailer: the awful miscasting, the forced cheery tone, and the gratuitous humour. The Lorax 2012 (I will add 2012 on the end to prevent confusion) is a film that fills me with such visceral hatred that it makes me question what other human beings really value the most in life. I would much rather watch the Star Wars prequels over The Lorax 2012, and yes, that includes Attack Of The Clones. What’s even worse is that when I stated to my friends that I thought this was the worst film ever made, they condemned me so much for it and to this day I cannot understand why. While I will gladly watch The Lorax 2012 over the likes of The Room and The Emoji Movie, it is still a film that gets my blood boiling.
Being that it’s a 1 hour 20 min feature length film, you can probably imagine that everything is stretched out through additional material. The Lorax 2012 opens in Thneedville, a town where everything is synthetic and made of either plastic or metal, and it is introduced through a musical number no less. Firstly, I must say that the animation is very immersive. It knows when to be bright and cheerful, and even the darker parts of the film later on know how to effectively contrast that feeling. It certainly feels more thoroughly rendered and less glossy than Illumination’s other ‘efforts’, and there were even a few sight gags that got a brief chuckle out of me, particularly during the opening musical sequence. I will also praise the architectural design of The Lorax 2012, for it’s faith leans more towards Dr. Seuss’ signature drawing style much like The Grinch 2000 did. But these don’t excuse the bland, unimaginative character designs that Illumination always churns out. Seriously, all of their films - even the ones with animals as the main characters - look like they take place in the same universe. You might call it stylish and unique; I call it lazy.
We are introduced to our main character, a young boy named Ted (Zac Efron), who has a crush on an environmentalist named Audrey (Taylor Swift). Audrey tells Ted all about the truffula trees and how they actually grew from the ground, and that what she wants more than anything else in the world is to see a real-life tree. This is what encourages Ted to set off on this film’s journey. It’s at this point where one of The Lorax 2012’s most glaring problems presents itself, and you probably noticed it from the trailers. Now I want to make it clear that I do not hate any of the cast members of this film, but who thought that casting Zac Efron, who was in his 20s at the time of this film’s production, as a young child character was the best idea? They don’t even go to the effort to alter his voice at all, and it simply doesn’t fit. Swift’s voice kind of fits Audrey, but it still sounds too deep and it’s abundant that nobody went to any lengths to have her actually embody her character. I could go on. But the most heinous cases are Ed Helms as the Once-Ler and Danny DeVito as the Lorax himself. Both Helms and DeVito completely obliterate the mellow tone of The Lorax, as well as destroying the spirit of the characters. In the 1972 short the Lorax came across as a wise mentor, hardened by his own teachings, and the Once-Ler’s voice exemplified a fantastic portrayal of an idealist who eventually becomes corrupt from his own greed. But in The Lorax 2012, both are obnoxious and extreme towards one another, and it’s the actor’s performances which relentlessly push these behaviours to the limit.
Ted asks his Mum if there is anywhere that he can get a real tree. She then proceeds to preach about how disgusting a real tree that grows out of the ground would be, and how the newer models are manufactured, with a remote control and built-in lights. Fortunately for Ted, his Aunt tells him that if he wants to find a real tree then he has to see the Once-Ler, who lives outside of Thneedville. She tells Ted where he is by reciting the opening lines to the original book: At the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows, and the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows, and no birds ever sing excepting old crows. We’re not even 10 minutes in to this film, and already Illumination have proved that they only managed to grasp the most superficial understanding of The Lorax. The Lorax is not about saving the trees! It’s not about pushing an environmentalist agenda! It’s not about rebelling against big corporations! It’s about the idea that anyone can be corrupted by greed almost without realising it. The Once-Ler’s plight of damaging the environment to make his thneed was just the manifest premise that set the story in motion. It’s very much like the lightsaber in Star Wars: The science behind how the lightsaber works is not important, because the lightsaber duels are really about the conflict and the internalisation of the characters. (I am very much aware that there is a science to the lightsaber, but that information was a by-product of the film that came afterwards.)
While Ted sets off to seek the Once-Ler, we are formally introduced to Thneedville’s Mayor, Mr O’Hare, who wants to devise a way to sell bottled air to the population by polluting the atmosphere even more and thus encouraging sales. Later on when he chastises Ted on leaving the town, he gives him a heavy-handed lesson on photosynthesis, considering trees a threat to his business. This is a particularly interesting element, the idea that there’s a villain that wants to keep the population oblivious to the terror of the outside world, almost like a George Orwellian dystopia, but in the context of The Lorax it fails. Mr O’Hare is as clichéd as a cartoon villain comes, and as far as I can tell he only existed so that there could be an over-the-top car chase for the climax. He further defeats the point of The Lorax by being an unredeemable villain, since one of the biggest plot points was that the Once-Ler finds a way to redeem himself and raise a sense of optimism. Speaking of O’Hare, pretty much every new element that The Lorax 2012 introduces is nothing but gratuitous filler. Ted’s love interest with Audrey; The Once-Ler’s over-abusive family; The Lorax himself being an obnoxious moron; The car chase for the climax! Because if there’s anything that I associate Dr. Seuss’ stories with, it’s love interests and car chases. But Mr O’Hare no doubt takes the top spot for being the most filler of filler. If you’re going to introduce new elements to an adaptation of a well-known story, then you should at the very very least ensure that they tie in to the main themes. Or better yet force familiar audiences to rethink the story in a new light, making them consider and notice things which they previously hadn’t.
As Ted makes his way across the outskirts, we really get a sense of how barren and desolate it really is. We see many tree stumps, decrepit billboards and a broken-down machine that’s revealed to be a super axe hacker vehicle. The mystery of it all surprisingly made me invested, and left me wondering just what it was all about, as if for a moment The Lorax 2012 knew how to emulate the tone of it’s source material perfectly. Once Ted reaches the Once-Ler’s house, we get a glimpse of the “Unless” stone. In the original the “Unless” was never revealed until the end, but here it forces the viewer to really bring it into question and wonder what it could mean. It’s always a strong move when a director leaves you wondering about something for the whole movie, and only towards the end reveals what it means and it usually subverts your expectations.
Then, much like in the book, the Once-Ler offers to tell Ted all about the truffula trees. And I do not know how to best express my anger towards this part: We see the Once-Ler’s face. We see the Once-Ler’s face! Once again, demonstrating that Illumination do not understand The Lorax. Yes, as a kid I always wondered why we never saw the Once-Ler’s face. I was constantly thinking “Who is he? What is he?”, but that was the point. The idea was that he could be anybody. Anybody could be the Once-Ler. Anybody can start off with good intentions and eventually be consumed by their own greed. What’s even worse, and weird, is that this Once-Ler plays an electric guitar and dresses like a hipster, and is usually the source of this film’s pop songs. Is this film really based off a Dr. Seuss story? Okay, I kind of see what Illumination were trying to do. They were trying to demonstrate that the Once-Ler started off as a normal guy, who then becomes more tyrannical and oppressive, but did he really have to be an obvious attempt to pander to the audience? Why couldn’t he retain the businessman-like attitude like in The Lorax? It would’ve been so much more effective at matching the tone that Seuss went for.
(Isn’t it funny that Zac Efron and Taylor Swift’s characters never sing in this film?)
I mentioned before that the actors’ performances made the characters feel more obnoxious than they ought to. Well, every character in The Lorax 2012 is obnoxious, loud and unsubtle, especially the Once-Ler and his family. Yeah, he has a family that egg him on once his thneed becomes a success, and after his downfall they abandon him and never return for the entire film. Before he makes his first thneed they literally say to him that his invention will not be a success, although I think I’ve come to accept that Illumination don’t specialise in well-written emotionally captivating stories at all. Having the Once-Ler work on his own in The Lorax helped to establish how pure greed is, and that it doesn’t originate from the intervention of others. It works because that’s a real feeling that humans experience this way. Even the Lorax, the supposed humble voice of reason that begged the Once-Ler to reconsider his ways, behaves like an irritating brat by trying to let down his tent and having the animals invade it later. And to make things even worse still, the Once-Ler’s transition into a greedy corporate boss that hacks down the trees left right and centre is incredibly rushed. Just one song, and suddenly he’s evil. Unlike in the 1972 adaptation where he slowly and gradually built up to that position, during which we witness him contemplating his actions and debating with the Lorax.
And so inevitably, as the story goes, the last truffula tree is cut down and the Once-Ler goes out of business. All the animals are sent off - not one by one, but all together - and the Lorax lifts himself up into the sky, leaving the Once-Ler the “Unless” stone to gaze down upon. In a surprisingly faithful move, the scene where the Once-Ler tells of the “Unless” stone is visually effective. When the Once-Ler’s shadow is looming over the stone, the Lorax having just departed, the next shot mirrors it by having Ted’s shadow loom over it in the same way, as if to remind us that anybody could end up in the Once-Ler’s shoes and that Ted has a chance to change that while he still can. The Once-Ler gives Ted the last truffula seed, and tells him “It’s not about what it is. It’s about what it can become”. Admittedly this is a cool bit of dialogue, but it inevitably dumbs down the subtle approach because this is a visual medium.
If you know the original story, then you know that this is where it ended. The kid walks away with the seed, symbolic that it is his responsibility to decide what he does with it, and thus makes us wonder what we would do if given such a heavy task to fulfill. One of the greatest things about the The Lorax is that it managed to make me feel involved in everything that was going on. I really felt the ever-growing chaos as the Once-Ler became more and more powerful and significant; I was left uncertain and shaky on whether the Lorax would ever come back or not; and I realised that it was up to me, the young reader, to take responsibility and ensure that I never became too consumed by my own power. But in The Lorax 2012, all that precious ambiguity is thrown out the window as we are given a secure conclusion to everything! The seed grows, Ted helps Thneedville realise why we need trees, and of course, the Lorax himself comes back. There goes all the mystery! There goes what made The Lorax such a masterpiece!
What’s that I hear you all asking? “How would you have made it then if you think it’s so bad? Can you really do better?”. Simple: It didn’t need to be made. There is an important rule that you learn in screenwriting, and it’s a rule that applies to real life aswell. It’s that you need to know when to stop. You need to know when you’ve made your point and move on. Does A Clockwork Orange need a sequel? Does Reservoir Dogs need a sequel? Does Shaun Of The Dead need a sequel? Does Serial Experiments Lain need a second season? No, because they have all masterfully served their duty by saying what they’ve wanted to say in the best way possible. 25 minutes is all that The Lorax needed. Oh, but now I hear you all whining “But this Lorax is for a new generation that need it updated so that they can understand it better!”. So do I need to have been a 70s/80s kid to understand Star Wars then? Do I need to be a kid now to understand Adventure Time? The films that I have referenced here are all obviously products of their own time, but the reason why they can be re-watched today is because they have interesting themes, well-written characters, and clever, subtle visuals that force the audience to think.
It’s hard for me to imagine a future where people will state that The Lorax 2012 is a classic, because rather than being an art form, it panders to demographics and beats them over the head with what it’s trying to communicate, thus proving that it does not respect one’s power to think for themselves.