Friday, March 2, 2012

Dr. Seuss': The Lorax [2012]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-I)  Ted Zwecker (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Ted Zwecker's review

After decrying on this blog a year of surprisingly stupid, often arguably hate-filled and flagrantly politicized children's films on one side teaching kids that Hispanics (Hop), all people of color (Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2), all people with "foreign", that is, non-American/English accents (Hoodwinked 2) are bad to Evil and on the other side encouraging kids to mock a former American Vice-President (Dick Cheney er oil baron "Tex Richman" in The Muppets Movie) and a former President (G.W. Bush in the person of a "bumbling, out of touch Santa" in Arthur Christmas who in the story did, in fact, "leave one child behind...") one comes to  Dr. Seuss': The Lorax (directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Bala, screenplay by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul based on the children's book by the same name by Dr. Seuss).

Even in its original children's book form, The Lorax, is a somber (not-particularly funny) and rather direct parable about the consequences greed and environmental destruction.  The Once-ler (voiced in the film by Ed Helms) sets-up shop outside of town among the "Truffula trees." He chops one of the trees down to harvest its "tuft" which was "softer than silk and had the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk."  The tuft he processed into a product called a Thneed.  What's a Thneed?  Well it was something that people didn't even know that they "needed" but once created it became "a fine something that all people need."

Soon the Once-ler has a good business going.  He builds a factory, hiring all his cousins, uncles and aunts to work there. And though initially he tells the Lorax (voiced in the film by Danny DeVito), a short mustached creature that comes out of the stump of the first tree that he chopped down that he "just chopped down but one tree, I'm doing no harm," the Once-ler is soon chopping down Truffula trees on an industrial scale ... until there's nothing left of the forest, all its whimsical creatures are gone (even the Lorax), and even his former customers have gone-on to buying other things discovering that they didn't "need" those Thneeds after all.  

Obviously "there's a message" in this story.  But the next question ought to follow: Is it a bad one?  I don't think so, because what the story of The Lorax describes has happened already many times before:

(1) It is said that when the Pilgrims first landed at Plymouth Rock on the Atlantic Coast in Massachusetts in 1620, "a squirrel could hop from tree to tree from the Atlantic Coast (Plymouth Rock) all the way to the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground."  That obviously is no longer true and the plundering and burning of often fantastically "old growth forests" for no good reason (other than that it can be done or even that "the trees are in the way") both in the United States and more recently around the world has certainly been well documented.

(2) Mountain-men and fur trappers did, in fact, decimate the beaver population in North America because the underside of the beaver pelt came to be used to make felt for "felt hats" (most famously the "top hats" that men wore in the nineteenth century).  But once there were no longer enough beavers to go around to make those stupid felt hats, fashion went on to "other things..."). 

(3) The wading birds of the Florida Everglades were also all but wiped out by the 19th century fashion of using the feathers from exotic birds to adorn, this time, women's hats.  Again, women who had happily lived without having feathers adorning their hats before this fad, have come to live without them again since the birds from which the feathers were extracted were all but wiped out...

(4) Thanks to such "environmental extremists" like John Muir, John James Audubon and perhaps most importantly U.S. President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, much of the remaining forests and wildlife regions of the United States were saved from imminent destruction by swift/decisive government fiat (often involving  summary Federal takeover) that would stun most Americans of a more right-wing persuasion today.  Yet, that the pristine stone face of Yosemite's El Capitan is not obscured today by waterslides, pawn shops, wax museums and wedding chapels like those cluttering the Wisconsin Dells, Lake George, NY, and the Niagara Falls or that there are any wading birds at all remaining in Florida and the other bayou regions of the South Eastern United States is the direct result of these men's convictions to preserve the remaining natural beauty of our nation for future generations.

(5) In the 1990s over-fishing by fishing fleets of various nations resulted in a crisis and even collapse of cod fisheries across the North Atlantic.  Demand had increased, the size and number of fishing vessels had increased but there were only so many fish to catch.  The collapse of a number of the fisheries in the North Atlantic has had a devastating impact on the fishing industry across the region even as, past consumers of those fish have moved-on to eat other things and other fish from other places ... 

So, yes, both the book and now the film "talk" of such stupid, unthinking environmental destruction driven by unconcern/negligence and an "it's okay simply because we can do it" mentality for the sake of products that we never really needed (and won't need after the resources required for their production are gone) in a manner that even a 3-5 year old could understand.  But honestly, as one from a religious tradition that tells us to live modestly and with concern for others, I don't see that as bad ...

Finally, there are a number of plot differences between the book and the film that those who knew the book would quickly recognize.  First of all, there are many other characters added to the film that weren't present in the original children's book.  But these changes allow the book to be translated better into a film:

In the original book, there really were only three major characters.  There was Once-ler, The Lorax and finally a boy who comes to the Once-Ler to ask what happened to all the trees.

In the film, the Once-ler and the Lorax obviously continue as characters.  The boy's given a name, Ted (voiced by Zac Efron).  Growing up in a spick-and-span if utterly artificial suburban-looking paradise called Sneedville, he starts to ask about what happened to "real trees" only after Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift) a girl he's trying to impress tells him that she'd really, really like to see a "real tree" one day.  Ted gets help from his Grandma Norma (voiced by Betty White) who still remembers trees and tells him how to find the Once-ler who lives someways "outside of town."

To get "outside of town" proves not altogether easy, because the cozy, suburban paradise turns out to be ringed and isolated from the larger (and far less idyllic world) by something of a wall a la The Truman Show [1998].  Indeed, Ted, gets himself into trouble with the "powers that be," notably "bottled air" magnate Mr. O'Hare (voiced by Rob Riggle) when he tries to get outside the cozy confines of Sneedville.

After recounting his sad story and that of the Lorax to Ted, Once-Ler gives him the last seed of the last Truffula tree which Ted brings back for Audrey.  Much then ensues ...

The message however of both the book and the movie remain the same: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it's not."  That is, unless we come to care for the trees and all the whimsical animals living among them, they're all going to go away.  And while we may live in a "plastic paradise" for a while, we'll end up paying for even "bottled air."

Yes, this makes for a "political message" in the United States in our time.  But this message is one that I don't mind hearing said.  We do have to care ... And yes, I do think that this is the best animated children's movie to come out since its creators' previous film Despicable Me [2010].


Since at least the time of Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church has been reflecting on the Environmental questions of our day and has offered a characteristically balanced approach to the issue.  While certainly not divinizing Nature, it has argued that respect for Nature (Creation) ought to be seen as a necessary expression of our respect for our/its Creator. (John Paul II, Peace with God our Creator, Peace with All Creation, message for the World Day of Peace, Jan 1, 1990). 

In this line, the Servite Order to which I belong has recently produced a lovely reflection on a Servite expression of this ethic called Cultivating Environmental Concerns with Our Lady.

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1 comment:

  1. While the movie is funnier than the book, the drawback of this modernized version is that it loses the timeless quality of the story on the page. Still, I had a good time and it will definitely resonate well with plenty of adults and just about every kid imaginable. Great review Dennis.