‘Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax’ Boasts Strong Voice Cast But Weak Storytelling

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CHICAGO – “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” certainly isn’t an awful film by any stretch of the imagination. It features some solid voice work, a few lessons worth learning by the iGeneration, and some nifty visuals. It’s also pretty damn boring. Even the little ones at the family screening I attended seemed to lose interest in how this timeless story has been stretched to the demands of a modern family film. It just never quite connects in the way fans of this legendary character hope it would.

“The Lorax” tells two stories, a majority of the film taking place in flashback. In the present, we are introduced to the hustling, bustling world of Thneedville through an opening song that is a tragic sign of things to come. Perhaps the worst element of “The Lorax” is the music by John Powell, a talented composer who can’t find the rhythm for this piece. At all. Remember the songs in “The Muppets” that got your toes tapping? What’s the opposite of toe-tapping? That’s the grating music in “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” not a single song of which I could hum for you now since my brain has appropriately repressed them.

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax
Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax
Photo credit: Universal Pictures

Back to the story. Thneedville is a futuristic metropolis not unlike the sheltered environment of “The Truman Show.” Everyone who lives there breathes air pumped out by O’Hare Air and buys fake plastic trees that they can change for the season but never watch grow. It’s a plastic world in a bubble and we soon learn that all that remains outside of this seemingly happy processed city is a wasteland of stumps where trees used to be and a sky blocked out by the smog and pollution of industry run amok. Lou Dobbs is already pissed off.

Thneedville may be plastic but it still has that timeless ingredient of young love. In this case, sweet Ted (Zac Efron) has a crush on neighbor Audrey (Taylor Swift), a lovely girl who paints long-gone trees on her house and tells Ted about how she’d probably marry a man who could get her a real live one. This spurs Ted to action and when Grammy Norma (Betty White) tells him that there’s someone outside of town who may know how to get a tree, he ventures beyond the city walls where he finds The Once-ler (Ed Helms), a haggard soul who tells Ted the story of The Lorax (Danny DeVito).

It turns out that The Once-ler used to be an aspiring businessman who came to town with dreams of manufacturing his Thneeds, a do-it-all device that can be a hat, a towel, or whatever you need. After chopping down a tree, The Lorax, the creature who speaks for the trees, comes to him and asks for a bit of understanding for nature and the adorable creatures who need the forest. Profits trumps environment and Thneed production destroys the land. Can Ted turn back time and be the Lorax’s last hope for humanity?

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax
Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax
Photo credit: Universal Pictures

“Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” is a surprisingly disjointed feature by the very fact that the love story at its core between Ted/Audrey never shares screen time with the title character. I’m sure there must have been dozens of pitches over the years as to how to turn Seuss’ book into a movie but I don’t think this was the right arc to take. Everything that happens in Thneedville feels a bit over-heated and frenetic while the action of the flashback is too slight for a feature film. The film moves in fits and starts, never finding a rhythm. Present day teenagers, flashbacks with the title characters, a musical number – it’s unfocused in a way that leads to boredom.

To be fair, the voice cast is strong – although I’m so tired of hearing Helms “improv sing” a la “The Hangover.” I actually wanted the script to be better so the natural charisma of actors like Efron, Swift, and White were more amplified. In other words, the cast is better than the material they’re given to read.

“Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” never becomes grating or overly weighed down with gross-out humor or pop culture gags – all crimes committed by many of its recent animated peers. It’s essentially harmless. But I’m not about to give a pass to a movie based on a legendary book, one of the most beloved of the last century, for being “just OK.” It comes down to this –Theodor Seuss Geisel might be on-board thematically but even he would be bored.

“Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” features voice work by Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, Ed Helms, Betty White, Danny DeVito, and Rob Riggle. It was written by Ken Daurio & Cinco Paul and directed by Chris Renaud & Kyle Balda. It opens on March 2nd, 2012.

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