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<i>The Lorax</i>: Who’ll Speak for the Trees?

In the interest of lending some Seussian-style optimism to this discussion of The Lorax, Hollywood's latest attempt to translate the good doctor's groundbreaking work to the big screen, here are some things that the new animated adaptation of his 1971 environmental parable is better than:

The Live-Action Grinch and Cat in the Hat
Granted, it's hard to be worse than either of those wastes of celluloid, which were difficult to watch not only because they desecrated Seuss' texts, but also due to their garish visuals and off-putting lead performances (by Jim Carrey and Mike Meyers respectively). The CGI-animation in The Lorax is bright and cheery and pays homage to the original artwork without straining to replicate it precisely. Danny DeVito's gruff baritone is also a natural fit for the bright orange Truffula Tree protector, the Lorax, while Ed Helms successfully rids his voice of any trace of sweetly naïve paper salesman Andy Bernard to play the profit-minded Thneed industrialist, the Once-Ler. Sure, the rest of the vocal cast -- which includes Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, Jenny Slate, Rob Riggle and Betty White, all of whom are playing characters that have been invented solely for the movie -- ranges from decent to actively annoying, but at least you can listen to the central duo without wanting to stuff Brown Barbaloot fur in your ears.

Seussical: The Musical
Landing with a belly flop on Broadway a decade ago, this ill-fated musical based on Dr. Seuss' works had a number of things wrong with it, starting with the completely forgettable score and songs. While the handful of musical numbers that pop up in The Lorax aren't on the level of, say, The Little Mermaid (or, hell, even Tarzan), they're clever in the moment and one of them -- a big Once-Ler led showstopper that shows him morphing from a start-up entrepreneur into a major business tycoon at the expense of the beautiful land around his ever expanding factory -- is actually kind of affecting.

Horton Hears a Who
According to my personal records, I did see this animated version of Seuss' 1954 book when it was released in 2008, but damned if I can remember a thing about it. Apparently, it featured Jim Carrey in his second Seussian gig as the titular good-hearted elephant, while Steve Carell voiced the Mayor of Whoville, a role that was much expanded from the original text. Since I have no memory of Horton, it's entirely possible that I'm wrong in calling The Lorax the better movie. At the same time, the fact that I can't describe a single scene or line of dialogue tells me that Horton committed a sin worse than being terrible: being abjectly mediocre. (You tend to remember the truly terrible movies; that's why I have total recall of Nic Cage's Wicker Man remake six years after seeing it. ) Of course, I have no idea whether I'll be able to remember anything about The Lorax four years from now, so time may yet prove to be the equalizer between these two movies.

Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace
My four-year-old has been working his way through the Star Wars movies on DVD recently, starting with the Original Trilogy. But he hit a wall with the first prequel, which honestly proved to be even worse than my wife or I remembered it (forget Jar Jar for a moment, those fish-eyed aliens in the opening scene may be the most offensive caricatures in recent movie history). He gave it a valiant effort, but about 30 minutes in, it was clear he was bored out of his mind. In contrast, The Lorax engaged his attention all the way through and while it hasn't displaced his all-time favorite Seuss adaptation -- the '70s TV special Dr. Seuss on the Loose (yeah, I don't get his love for that one either) -- he's already expressed interest in seeing it again, which is more than I can say for Phantom Menace.

Lest you think that this movie is going to get away with a mild pass, here are some other things that are much, much better than The Lorax:

The Original Star Wars Movies
Okay, so this isn't really a fair comparison, since one is the foundation for all modern-day blockbuster franchises and the other is a middling adaptation of a classic children's story. Still, re-watching Episodes IV-VI with my son has reminded me how much fun it is to see a movie leap off the screen and take root in a young viewer's mind. Words like "lightsaber," "Boba Fett" and "Tauntaun" have become a regular part of his vocabulary and he takes as much pleasure in pretending to be Darth Vader and/or Boba Fett as I did back in the day. Even though he liked The Lorax, he doesn't walk around imitating the characters or pretending that he's climbing a Truffula Tree. And that's the key that separates a children's classic from a mild diversion. He may have been entertained in the moment by The Lorax, but Star Wars will stick with him a lot longer.

Any Studio Ghibli Feature
The other week, I sang the praises of three great Ghibli titles, but you really can't go wrong with any of the films produced by this legendary Japanese animation house, all of which are models of exceptional craft and thoughtful storytelling. Additionally, many of them touch on environmental themes in a far more nuanced and sophisticated way than the heavy-handed messaging of the film version of The Lorax. In that respect, they're actually truer to the spirit of Seuss' text than this movie is.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Not the live-action one, obviously. I'm talking about the 1966 television cartoon that remains the single best Seuss adaptation in any medium. Granted, it helps that the makers of that half-hour special didn't have to embellish the narrative to drag it out to feature length. Still, there are so few perfect book-to-screen adaptations in this world that the ones that do exist deserve to be celebrated. From Chuck Jones' artful animation to Boris Karloff's rich, deep baritone to the terrific music (particularly the infectiously hummable tune, "You're A Mean One, Mister Grinch"), every element works in concert to create an enduring classic. Whereas in the case of The Lorax, for every part that works, there are at least three to four that don't.

The Original Book
At its core, Seuss' story is a melancholic reminder that actions have consequences. The movie retains that idea, but it comes perilously close to being drowned out by aggressively broad physical comedy (so many people get hit in the face, I thought I was watching a UFC bout), unnecessary action set-pieces and obnoxious characterizations (to their credit, the filmmakers at least avoid indulging in Shrek style pop-culture humor). Most of the latter problems come into play whenever the movie diverts from the book into the tacked-on plot involving young Ted (Efron) and his attempts to recover the last Truffula tree seed from the Once-Ler in order to impress his crush, Audrey (Swift), a mission that brings him into conflict with the dictatorial businessman that runs his town, Mr. O'Hare (Riggle). (It should probably be pointed out that Dr. Seuss' real name is Theodor "Ted" Geisel, while Audrey is the name of his second wife, who currently oversees his estate.) Besides borrowing liberally from a number of other movies -- from Wall-E (the final action sequence finds Ted and Audrey racing to protect their seed) to, believe it or not, Spaceballs (Mr. O'Hare's business is bottling oxygen, much like good ol' President Skroob) -- this storyline brings nothing substantive to the table beyond padding out the runtime. Even my son recognized that Ted and Audrey were a waste of screentime; whenever the movie cut away to their scenes, he leaned over and asked "When's the Lorax coming back?"

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