Magazine April 2, 2012, Issue

Horton Hears a Dud

A review of The Lorax

There was a time, somewhere around the age of five, when my favorite Dr. Seuss book was The Butter Battle Book. This preference probably owed less to the book’s quality than to the fact that it was newly published and delivered to me as a Christmas present, which meant that — unlike The Cat in the Hat and Horton Hears a Who and The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and other battered denizens of my book pile — I hadn’t read it often enough to grow weary of it. But maybe, just maybe, my political antennae were starting to twitch as well, and I could discern that The Butter Battle Book was trying to be more than just a children’s book — that its pages offered not only a story, but an argument as well.

Only later, of course, did I recognize that the argument in question was morally dubious, if not repugnant. (The titular “butter battle” is a Cold War update of Jonathan Swift’s Lilliput–Blefuscu conflict over the best way to crack an egg, and the book is written so as to imply that the difference between the United States and the Soviet Union is about as consequential as the difference between buttering toast on the top and on the bottom.) Still, when I’ve returned to The Butter Battle Book in the years since, I’ve always been struck by how effectively the parable works — how smoothly the Seussian language makes the messaging go down, and how naturally the author’s usual absurdist style meshes with a Dr. Strangelove–esque critique of Mutually Assured Destruction.

The same can’t be said of The Lorax, Seuss’s early-1970s eco-fable, in which a feckless entrepreneur named the Once-ler paves paradise over the objections of a dwarfish and mustachioed wood creature “who speaks for the Trees” (and the fish, and the birds, and the bears). The environmentalist message is less objectionable than The Butter Battle’s naïve moral equivalence, but as political art goes, The Lorax is otherwise inferior: Its agitprop is cruder, its plot more predictable, and its bids for short-term relevance more transparent. (The original text of the book even has the Lorax muttering, “I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie” — though Theodor Geisel, to his credit, removed the line after Erie was cleaned up.)

Presumably because environmentalism is more relevant than the nuclear-arms race these days, though, it’s The Lorax rather than The Butter Battle Book that’s the latest Seuss to be adapted for the screen. Adapted, and massacred: However flawed it may be, no book deserves this kind of fate.

Unlike such abominations as the Mike Myers Cat in the Hat and the Jim Carrey Grinch, the new Lorax adaptation is animated rather than live-action, which at least spares us the sight of Danny DeVito in a Lorax suit. But otherwise it’s yet another Seuss-to-cinema train wreck. The original narrative has been stretched and stretched to fill out a 90-minute running time, and every nook and cranny of the fable has been filled in with busy, pointless plotting. The result is a film with no redeeming qualities: The source material’s irritating agitprop has been raised to hectoring propaganda, and everything genuinely Seussian about the story has been buried under layers of slapstick, showboating, and computer-animated attitude. (There are also, I regret to report, several musical numbers.)

In the book, the whole story is told in flashback — a tale of paradise lost, delivered by the penitent Once-ler to a boy named Ted, culminating in a half-hopeful “unless . . .” In pursuit of a less ambiguous ending, the movie makes Ted an obnoxious pre-teen (voiced by Zac Efron) whose zeal to impress his older, tree-crazed crush (the voice of Taylor Swift) inspires him to overthrow their tacky, plastic, polluted present and restore the lost Arcadia outright. (They should have called it The Lorax: Revenge of the Truffula Trees.)

This expansion requires layering on a present-day antagonist, an industrialist even more evil than the Once-ler, who relies on pollution to create a market for his bottled air; giving Ted a “cool” sidekick (Betty White as his hip-to-the-hop grandma); and adding enough kid-movie clichés to make you wish the Lumière brothers had stuck with the still-photograph business. And all of this frenetic mugging, of course, is in the service of a message that extols the simple, the primitive, the authentic, the green and pleasant and natural.

In this sense, the Lorax adaptation resembles James Cameron’s Avatar, another nature-worshiping message movie that embodied the very trends and forces it criticized. But at least Avatar displayed an extraordinary technological mastery in the course of critiquing the quest for technological mastery. The creators of this Lorax haven’t mastered anything at all: They’re out to denounce the consumerism and waste and ticky-tack of modern life, but their movie is a piece of tacky, meretricious junk.

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