Given his legacy in children's literature, one would think Dr. Seuss's stories would make similarly beloved movies. Oh the places they could have gone … rather than silly live-action duds like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat. Dr. Seuss' short stories work far better as animated featurettes, such as the '70s era TV specials and the more recent Cat in the Hat series on PBS.
Illumination Entertainment at least got it right with 2008's Horton Hears a Who. The filmmakers understood the source material well enough to build on the story while remaining true to the theme and tone. Horton made for a charming, funny, and well-animated feature that even got some viewers thinking about faith vs. science—the nature of belief in things unseen.
Illumination returns to the Seuss library with The Lorax, one of his most memorable stories and stronger narratives. Surely this one would be a cinch to successfully adapt to the big screen? Not quite.
The Lorax is a cautionary tale that features a young boy visiting a mysterious recluse called The Once-ler, who tells the boy his woeful story of entrepreneurship, greed, and environmental waste. He once discovered a magnificent resource in Truffulas (fluffy, cottony palm trees) that led to his invention and production of multi-purpose garments called Thneeds. Enter The Lorax, a mysterious, fuzzy, mustached lump who sprouts from the first tree stump. He speaks for the trees and warns The Once-ler to stop exhausting the supply of Truffulas before it's too late. Given The Once-ler's later status and the barren landscape of his home, it's obvious he didn't listen.
Though this film stays (mostly) true to its simple roots, more was needed to make it feature length. The filmmakers have essentially interwoven a sequel with the original tale. Now the story begins in Thneedville, an isolated suburb of plastic homes and inflatable plants. A 12-year-old named Ted has a crush on a local girl named Audrey (both named in honor of Dr. Seuss—real name: Theodor Geisel—and his second wife). Audrey wants to see one of the real trees that she has somehow heard about. Desperate to impress, Ted hears of the Once-ler from his wacky Grammy Norma and sneaks out of town to learn what happened to the trees.
There's an antagonist in all this, but it's not the misguided, remorseful Once-ler. Looking like the twin brother of Edna Mode from The Incredibles, Mr. O'Hare is a diminutive, tough-talking corporate baddie who has conned the town into buying canned air from him. There's no way he's going to allow some kid to ruin his monopoly with an oxygen-producing plant.
As you might imagine, The Lorax has generated some mild controversy over the years for its seemingly anti-corporate, pro-environment stance. Surely most can agree on the need to be good stewards of God's creation, and hopefully no industry actually wants pollution. Raising awareness to find a balance between capitalism and conservation is a worthy message. But this film goes a bit too far with its preachiness—not just Mr. O'Hare, but also implying people are dumb because they consume anything in a plastic bottle and offering a grating song like "How Bad Can I Be?" to shamelessly decry consumerism.