Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2012

The Lorax

No further explanation thneeded

Feature-length run time only serves to diminish the power of Dr. Seuss' 'The Lorax'

The Lorax
Universal Pictures
Director: Chris Renaud
Screenplay: Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, based on the book by Dr. Seuss
Starring: The voices of Zac Efron, Ed Helms, Danny DeVito, Taylor Swift, Betty White, Rob Riggle and Jenny Slate
Rated PG / 1 hour, 26 minutes
Opened March 2, 2012
(out of four)

New rule: Don't decide to be a musical just as an excuse to kill 15 or 20 minutes of screen time. If you're going to be a musical, be one because you actually have some good songs.

The Lorax does not have good songs, but that doesn't stop it from singing them. From time to time, at least. See, it's not even committed to being a musical. It's actually a run-of-the-mill animated film, but with some mediocre songs randomly thrown in. I suppose this is what happens when you take a book with only a couple hundred words in it, and have to turn it into a movie. You find as many excuses as possible to increase the run time and thus justify the big-screen treatment.

To be fair, songs do fit with the spirit of Dr. Seuss' rhyming prose. But the way they function in The Lorax makes for an awkward, if not pointless, mix. Rather than standing out as their own setpieces, or fitting snugly into the overall aesthetic, the musical numbers kinda sit there, blandly reinforcing the points and messages the other parts of the film have already told us, or are about to tell us. The script tells us one thing, and then a song tells it to us again.

The bizarrely literal lyrics certainly aren't up to this Seussian task, and the music itself is instantly forgettable. (The songs sound like someone's from-memory imitation of what a modern musical number is supposed to sound like.) (If that makes sense.)

And in the end it all feels so inconsequential. The singing, the dancing, the added subplots and villains and action - with 86 minutes and thousands of words to work with, its message is so much less potent than in the comparably few words of Seuss' book. The critique of industrialization and environmental disregard is the same, but seems so diluted when extended and expanded to this length.

Here is what will be familiar: In a grim world of dark, polluted skies, rotten soil and little color, a little boy goes to see the mysterious "Once-ler," who is said to know all about the world that once was - specifically, about the trees that once, rumor has it, grew all over the ground, with no end in sight.

And so the Once-ler recounts his tale of good old American ambition, of the day he found a wondrous land filled with green grass and all colors of Truffula trees, of the all-purpose invention - the Thneed - he fashioned out of the trees' soft tufts, and how he drew the ire of the Lorax (who, as we know, speaks for the trees) when he began chopping down all the trees in the forest to make more Thneeds, and more money, as fast as he possibly could.

*Side note: The film also doesn't seem to know a good joke when it has one. "Thneed" is an extremely funny word - it gets funnier every time you say it, and the more you think about it - and yet it's never funny in the movie. Why is that? Did the filmmakers really never realize the inherent comedy of this word's pronunciation? What happened to the great art of wordplay? You realize this is an adaptation of Dr. Seuss, don't you? DON'T YOU? The mere presence of the word "thneed" offers endless joke possibilities, and I can't recall a single one in "The Lorax." Nothing gets my goat like a missed comedic opportunity. But I digress.

The movie necessarily expands upon the basic story elements presented in the book, creating a fully fledged modern day where trees - in fact, plants of all kinds - are either electric or inflatable. In fact, everything in Thneedville is synthetic - even the air, courtesy of the odious Mr. O'Hare (voiced by Rob Riggle), who took advantage of the town's lack of clean air (a lack for which he, of course, is largely responsible) to sell the citizens oxygen in a can, or even a bottle. And instead of just listening to the Once-ler's story, we see his whole story play out in front of us, essentially making the Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms) a narrator rather than a storyteller.

This is all well and good, except the characters, story and setting are so nondescript, so half-baked, they barely register. The town of Thneedville is meant to be an elaborate piece of plastic, futuristic satire, and there are some funny sight gags, but it never comes to life as a place. It's just the setting where the action (blandly) happens to take place. The young boy (voiced by Zac Efro) with the crush on the young girl (voiced by Taylor Swift) is no more distinctive than the next. The plucky grandma (voiced by - who else? - Betty White) offers exactly what we expect from her and no more. Ditto the villain, who looks like a male version of Edna Mode from The Incredibles, only completely uninteresting. (And look, I like Rob Riggle and all, but only the voice of Wallace Shawn could have made this particular villain worthwhile.)

However . . .

(And there's always a "however," isn't there?)

I mentioned earlier how dull the film's music is. That remains true. But the musical numbers themselves? That's a different story. See, that's where the film seems to come to life a bit - if only because it's during those numbers where it seems to free itself of its narrative constraints.

Within those musical numbers is a kind of liberating quasi-surrealism that turns out to be the film's only source of genuine inspiration. The stream-of-consciousness imagery, the dreamlike mutations of those images, the disregard for all logic . . . Basically, the numbers play like interpretive music videos. There's something abstract and playful about it, as if Michel Gondry came in and took control exclusively of the musical sequences.

And then once those scenes are over, The Lorax goes back to being its unexceptional self. But just about every time the music starts, we're reminded of a better, crazier vision of this movie trying desperately to get out.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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