AF Commentator and Author on The Lorax Film

March 10, 2012

The disclaimer: I am a Dr. Seuss fan. Green Eggs and Ham was the first book I read on my own. Even before that, my favorite bedtime ritual was Dad reading me "Bartholomew and the Oobleck." But I never felt that The Lorax was Theodor Geisel's best work. It wore its heart on its sleeve; it always seemed a bit preachy. In many ways, I've thought of it as a learning project for him, on his way to creating the magnificent "Oh, the Places You'll Go." Plus, when The Lorax came out, I was nine -- almost exactly halfway between being a Seuss reader and a Tolkien reader, and way too old and sophisticated for such baby stuff.

Still, the original Lorax comes across like Moby Dick compared with the new film of the same name. This is not exactly irony. I've struggled to write about some of the same issues Geisel presented to young children -- though for the far easier adult and teen readers, in my case. And I continue to be in awe of his chops.

It isn't so much that the new movie aims low as it aims where Hollywood always aims these days. I'm trying to figure out whether the movie is the Phil Specter arrangement of the Dr. Seuss tale, or the Universal Studios' Theme Park ride. Like Specter's famous "Wall of Sound," that booming background you hear in early '60s Motown songs, it's impressive, even a bit overwhelming. Its visual inventiveness is undeniable -- especially in 3D -- and it very nearly succeeds on that basis alone. It also is, figuratively, a good ride -- when it turns to Hollywood-style action, it's in its sweet spot. If they aren't already building the literal ride in Orlando, they will be soon.

That's the problem. In the end, the movie tells us more about Hollywood than it does environmentalism. Case in point: in the original, the villain -- if you can call him that -- is the Once-Ler. The narrator-within-the-story, the hermitical Once-Ler tells a young boy of how he destroyed the Truffula-tree forest. He's a deeply ambivalent character -- he's done something terrible, but he's as much a victim of his sins as anyone. We feel as much sympathy as anger: we are the Once-Ler, let's face it. The movie's creators, predictably, found that too complex, and added another character to be the one-dimensional bad guy, the convenient other at whom we can all point a self-righteous finger.

They also spun the ending: in the book, the Once-Ler gives the boy the last Truffula-tree seed to plant, but the Loraxís warning -- "Unless" -- hangs in the air, and we aren't really sure how it ends. I won't be a spoiler, but let's just say the movie folks don't think you can handle as much ambiguity as Dr. Seuss presented to early readers.

The movie has other flaws. The stock romantic and good-guy/bad-guy add-on stories often come across as what they are -- filler -- and the plot drags at those points. But I'm more concerned with what the movie gets right. The action, the eye candy draw our attention away from the story's heart and soul. I don't know that a kid who watches this movie will get anything nourishing out of it. The moral comes across as heavy-handed, and at best I suspect it will provide a 15-minute environmentalism that's forgotten as quickly as a candy bar.

It seems as if Hollywood can only tell us one story these days, and your kid can get that story from most movies. If you want something to build green young minds, go back to the Seuss book; or at least the original TV treatment.

Allegheny Front commentator Ken Chiacchia has published several speculative fiction short stories for young adults. This piece about The Lorax film is his first movie review for our program.