Everyone involved in Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, from co-directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda to the Universal Pictures marketing division, has been faced with a tricky balancing act. On one hand, there’s the need to remain true to the spirit of Seuss’ anti-consumerist work, his most earnestly activist effort. On the other, there’s the requisite allegiance to 3D animated family movie standards and the obligatory corporate tie-ins that come with promoting such an effort. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen Seuss’ mystical mustachioed creation across the advertisement spectrum lately, in everything from IHOP ads to printer spots and Mazda car commercials. Sure, Universal has made a point of pursuing advertising partners with “green” tie-ins/messages, or so they claim, but the Lorax’s ubiquitous commercial presence leaves the sort of rotten taste that only comes with the betrayal of a sacrosanct legacy.

Fortunately, the film itself fares better. It’s a pleasant, minor-key affair that gives appropriate attention and weight to the important environmentalist message. The picture asks that its young viewers sit up and take notice of the world around them; it demands that they put down the video games, learn to care about nature and seek to preserve it.

The urgency behind that theme drives the story, set in the world of Thneed-Ville, a labyrinthine maximalist town birthed by consumerism and defined by commercialism. There are no real parks or trees here; only turf and blow-up facsimiles. Fresh air is bottled and sold by the villainous O’Hare (Rob Riggle), who keeps the Thneed-Ville residents shuttered away from the outside world. Yet precocious 12-year-old Ted (Zac Efron) escapes from the plastic prison, driven by his girl crush Audrey’s (Taylor Swift) desire to be given a genuine, living tree. Making his way through the desolate, apocalyptic landscape outside Thneed-Ville, Ted finds the Once-ler (Ed Helms), an old man who tells him the story of the Lorax (Danny DeVito), protector of the forest, and the ways unchecked greed led to the tragic destruction of the trees.

The Lorax runs into some of the same problems that have hampered past feature-length Seuss adaptations (The Cat in the Hat, Horton Hears a Who etc.). Chief among them: the fact that building a feature-length narrative out of these short stories requires a lot of padding. The extra storytelling almost always distracts from the distinct ethereal beauty at the core of Seuss’ books. The solution here is to turn The Lorax into a musical, but the musical numbers are superfluous distractions.

The movie’s at its best when it reconstructs Seuss’ inspired, colorful surrealist style. The picture offers such a loving, moving reproduction of the doctor’s warm images that you almost wish the filmmakers had forgotten about the plot. The visual contrast between the cold, ruined present-day world and the happier time of the trees, populated by the Lorax and his friendly animal friends drives home the message more effectively than anything. You feel the poignant sense of loss that sets in as the Lorax and the animals form a long, sad procession away from their ravaged former home. And that’s what sticks.

The Upside: Dr. Seuss would likely be proud of the movie, which stays true to his environmentalist message, placing it front and center.

The Downside: This doesn’t need to be a musical, and the bastardization of the character in the movie’s marketing has left a very bad taste.

On the Side: Mazdas? Seriously?

Grade: B


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