From the day it was published, Dr. Seuss’ environmental parable “The Lorax” has courted controversy. A screed about consumerism, greed and its cost to the environment, this anti-clear-cutting tale prompted protests in lumber-country school districts and just last week inspired an attention-starved Fox Business News anchor to attack its “indoctrination.”
That’s what you get when you write a character who says, “I speak for the trees” -- Lou Dobbs speaking up for the clear-cutters.
The gorgeous and glorious new film of this fable from Universal’s “Despicable Me” team turns a somewhat gloomy, cautionary tale into a 3-D musical, with catchy tunes and gags borrowed from every film from “Toy Story” to “Babe.”
But the message is as obvious and irritating to those who resent the Clean Air Act as ever.
Ted the teen (voiced by Zac Efron) lives in Thneedville, where everything is packaged, paved over and plasticized. He doesn’t know things weren’t always this way, or notice how bad things are until he tries to impress his cute redheaded neighbor, Audrey (Taylor Swift), and she shows him her mural.
“What are those?”
Audrey longs to see a real tree. And Ted, asking his mom, realizes how hard that’s going to be. “We already have a tree -- the latest model!”
But Granny (Betty White, of course) sends Ted off into the wastelands outside of the city, in pursuit of the Once-ler (Ed Helms). And the Once-ler tells Ted the tale of how he deforested the Seuss-scape long ago, all in the name of profit. The Once-ler, in flashbacks, remembers the warnings of the Lorax (Danny DeVito), and how he’d ignored them.
“Everyone here needs the trees,” the Lorax declares, surrounded by forest creatures. “And you’re choppin’ em down.”
The film is a feast of bright, Seuss colors and wonderful Seuss design -- all curvy, undulating lines and shapes. The 3-D kicks in as Ted dodges axe heads and the Once-ler is sent hurtling down river rapids.
A goldfish trio sings and chirps a funny accompaniment, just like the mice in “Babe.”
And the songs are a stitch -- Helms warbling “Everybody needs a thneed,” advertising his new scarf-like product made from the Truffula trees, and croons “How bah-ah-ah-ad can I be?” in his defense when the trees fall in their thousands and the cash piles up.
“I’m just building the economy,” he protests, standing in front of his business, which he’s labeled “Too big to fail.”
“Lorax” takes on echoes of “Wall-E” as it embraces its gloom -- the Once-ler’s replacement entrepreneur / villain is a fellow who has figured out how to bottle and sell clean air. Bu it’s all a set-up for the redemption song, the gospel-tinged “Let it Grow.”
That’s when it becomes obvious why the Seuss rhymes here are subdued, saved up for big moments when they’ll have the most impact. That’s when the warning of the Lorax -- “Unless” -- threatens the Lou Dobbses of this world with extinction.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”