Ever since it was first published, Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” has been criticized by some as nothing more than a heavy-handed environmentalist screed, and this computer-animated adaptation will do nothing to disabuse those who think so of the notion. Indeed, Cinco Paul’s lyrics for one of the songs, in which the “industrialist” offers his justification for mowing down all the trees, are likely only to exacerbate it. But if you aren’t one of Rush’s ditto-heads and set aside such ideological complaints, you should find that the picture, like the same makers’ “Despicable Me,” is jovial, colorful and engaging family entertainment.
The story, of course, is about Ted (voiced by Zac Efron), a young boy living in the thoroughly plastic town of Thneedville, where all grass and trees have been replaced by squeaky-clean unorganic substitutes. When Ted finds out that cute Audrey (Taylor Swift), on whom he has a crush, is enamoured of living flora, he takes his granny’s (Betty White) advice to venture beyond the city walls to seek out a recluse called the Once-ler (Ed Helms), who can tell him how to secure a tree for her.
The Once-ler tells Ted his unhappy story. He was once a happy-go-lucky inventor whose thneed quickly became a sensation. But it was made of the tufts from the multi-colored trees, and under pressure from his avaricious mother (Nasim Pedrad) and aunt (Elmarie Wendel), in order to speed production began sawing down the trees en masse rather than carefully plucking the tufts from them—despite that in doing so he broke his pledge to the mysterious critter called the Lorex (Danny DeVito), the protector of the trees, not to cut them down. In the process he drove away all the Disney-like birds, animals and fish that had inhabited the area, leaving only a desolate wasteland behind.
The Once-lier, who’s lived out his days in regret, sees young Ted as the one who can finally rectify his error, and entrusts to him a single seed that can serve to rejuvenate the area. But in order to plant it in the city square Ted must overcome the opposition of O’Hare (Rob Riggle)—an addition to the original—a diminutive fellow who’s made a mint, and become the place’s most powerful man, by selling fresh bottled air. After all, trees would produce it for free. That sets off a big closing chase in which the boy, his grandma and Audrey must elude O’Hare and his minions, overcome the resistance of the populace and plant the magic seed.
“The Lorax” is certainly a cautionary tale about the greedy abuse of natural resources told in Seussian terms that children can enjoy and appreciate, and there will be some who view it as merely an extension of the book’s “indoctrination” in green philosophy. But their answer to it, if they care to make one, would be better in the form of a movie of their own than shouts and denunciations. Most parents will appreciate not just this one’s conservation message but its charm and energy. The filmmakers have a good deal of fun with the harmonizing trio of fish in the happy flashbacks (which hearken back to the mice of “Babe”), and the winsome teddy bears have their moments as well. As voiced by Efron, Ted is an amiable young hero, and White brings her octogenarian verve to his spunky grandma, as DeVito does his gruff humor to the Lorax. Helms makes the Once-lier, especially in his younger days, a pleasant fellow, and shows that he can carry a tune well enough, too. Even Riggle’s O’Hare is a funnier character than you might expect from a modern addition to the Seuss source.
So “The Lorax” joins “Horton Hears a Who” among good, if not great, filmizations of Dr. Seuss books. Happily, neither Mike Myers nor Jim Carrey is anywhere to be found, and that’s all to the good.