Whenever filmmakers set out to turn Dr. Seuss’ picture books into full-length features, the same question always arises: “How do you expand a 10-minute read into a 90-minute movie?” Unfortunately, the answer is always the same: filler, and lots of it. Like Fox Animation’s 2008 Horton Hears A Who!, Illumination Entertainment’s musical feature The Lorax, helmed by Despicable Me co-director Chris Renaud and feature first-timer Kyle Balda, keeps that filler mild and simplistic. Neither adaptation reaches for the over-the-top crudities and garishness of the live-action The Cat In The Hat or How The Grinch Stole Christmas, but the blandness of the new material in both cases just highlights how unnecessary it is to the story. In particular, The Lorax packs all its crucial action into a few key scenes, further exacerbating the feeling that the movie could easily be chopped down into a half-hour TV special, much like the 1972 Seuss-scripted animated adaptation of the same book.
The core idea is the same: A shadowy hermit called The Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms) lives alone in a polluted, barren landscape he created by selfishly exploiting the environment. When a boy comes to hear his history, he explains how his greed ruined his world, and what might still be done about it. The movie version largely focuses on that boy, Ted (Zac Efron), who seeks out The Once-ler to impress his crush object Audrey (Taylor Swift). In the film’s best conceit, Ted comes from a walled city nearby, where the inhabitants, oblivious to the wreckage outside, love their battery-operated trees, inflatable bushes, and bottled fresh air, and proclaim—in a joyous, catchy opening number—that they’re perfectly happy not knowing where all the trash and runoff goes. But leaving the city puts Ted athwart bottled-air mogul Aloysius O’Hare (Rob Riggle), a dead ringer for a sex-changed Edna Mode from The Incredibles. Meanwhile, half the film exists in a flashback to The Once-ler’s past, when he was a chipper young’n, blithely cutting down trees and facing off with the eponymous tree-spokesman, the Lorax (Danny DeVito).
Ted’s conflict with O’Hare mostly provides an excuse for plenty of first-person console-videogame-style POV chase sequences, a redoubling of the original book’s messages about the dangers of untrammeled greed, and some comedy involving Ted’s grandma (Betty White). But it’s all featherweight noodling compared to the evocative part of the story: the Once-ler’s moral clash with the Lorax, and his transformation from a good-natured go-getter to a ruthless profitmonger. Unfortunately, the film lingers at great length on goofery involving the Lorax and his animal pals, then crams the moral turnaround and the world’s destruction into a quick musical number. In Seuss’ book, the Lorax has a frustrated pathos, and the story focuses on his pleas on nature’s behalf as it’s destroyed around him; here, he’s a neutered punchline in a series of height gags. The film’s design is beautiful, from the softer-than-silk truffula trees to Ted’s gaudy plastic hometown. The handful of songs are catchy, and the whole film feels pleasantly airy. But this is a dark story with a heavy message, and it’s been transformed into a harmless, pretty confection. In defanging it for comic effect, the filmmakers have done Seuss as much of a disrespectful disservice as if they’d laid on the fart gags.