Young Ted (voiced by Zac Efron) is hopelessly in love with his beautiful, albeit significantly taller neighbour, Audrey (Taylor Swift, yes that Taylor Swift) whose most heartfelt desire is to glimpse a real live tree. It seems like a hopeless wish given Ted and Audrey live in Thneed-Ville, a pristine plastic town where there are only inflatable trees powered by batteries whilst the booming business in bottled artificial air has made diminutive tycoon O'Hare (Rob Riggle) exceedingly rich and powerful. Nevertheless, Ted's Grammy Norma (Betty White) knows of someone who might know where all the real trees have gone. His name is the Once-ler (Ed Helms) and he lives far away from Thneed-Ville on a barren stretch of land. When Ted visits Once-ler in secret, the old recluse tells how his own foolishness and greed destroyed all the trees and drove away their guardian, the little orange, moustachioed Lorax (Danny DeVito).
After the success of Horton Hears a Who (2008) finally removed the stink of those atrocious live action remakes of The Grinch (2001) and The Cat in the Hat (2003) and made Dr. Seuss a box-office draw again, the late beloved children's author's widow, Audrey Geisel encouraged producer Chris Meledandri to tackle The Lorax. Seuss' book was previously adapted for television in 1972 as an accomplished animated short produced by legendary animator Friz Freleng from a script written by the author himself and narrated by avuncular character actor Eddie Albert. Published only a year earlier the original text was a pioneering eco fable warning of the danger corporate greed poses to nature although strangely misinterpreted in certain quarters as a stern advocate for stricter property laws. Go figure. For the CGI remake Meledandri recruited animators Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda and producer-screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, the creative team behind the much loved Despicable Me (2010) and its sequel though also the underwhelming and frankly bizarre Hop (2011).
The result is a flawed but well intentioned and ultimately winning fairytale that successfully conveys Seuss' laudable pro-environment message provided viewers are willing to wade through an awkward story structure and layers of self-defeating sarcasm. In both the original book and 1972 version the boy hero sits rapt while the Once-ler recounts his story. Here an impatient Ted constantly interrupts the prickly narrator while the plot contrives to have him disappear and return to hear more of the story over several days. Unlike the sublime Horton Hears a Who the film has a sprinkling of wise-ass humour, de rigeur in the post-Shrek (2001) landscape of CGI cartoons trying to pacify cynical parents, that occasionally ends up at odds with the sincere whimsy of Seuss. In the rush to get to the next pratfall the uneven first act see-saws between sidestepping important issues or else sledgehammer subtlety.
Happily the film recovers gloriously at the midway point when the Once-ler performs the song "How Bad Can I Be?" - an outstanding satire of self-deluding corporate rhetoric that features all the familiar excuses for despoiling nature (it's good for the economy, we donate to charity) along with a sly nod to Enron via the slogan: "Too big to fail." Whereas in both the book and original cartoon the Once-ler remains a Seussian creature, barely glimpsed save for his hairy green arm and yellow eyes, here he is most definitely a human being, lending the satire a more potent edge. Screenwriters Paul and Daurio sugar the pill somewhat shifting the Once-ler from reckless industrialist to misguided, guitar strumming young idealist done in by his greedy family. Even so the central message that a careless disregard for our environment will cost us dearly does get through when the Lorax sadly remarks: "A tree falls the way it leans. Be careful which way you lean." Predictably the right wing press seized on The Lorax as another example of Hollywood poisoning young minds against big business. In the interest of balance it is worth pointing out that a moment of complexity in the 1972 version, where the Once-ler challenges the Lorax to defend sacking his employees for the sake of the environment, is absent here.
One area where The Lorax eclipses Horton Hears a Who is the quality of its songs. No cover versions of REO Speedwagon hits here. Featuring lyrics by the screenwriters John Powell's musical numbers are lively and lovable reaching an emotional crescendo with "Let It Grow" wherein the hitherto anonymous crowd of Thneed-Ville citizens finally take a stand. It genuinely stirs the heart, even if one could question the wisdom of casting Zac Efron and Taylor Swift and not have them sing? Surely, a missed opportunity! The voice cast give exuberant, engaging performances with Danny DeVito a perfect vocal match for title character (who actually does very little in the story), Betty White everybody's idea of a game grandma and Saturday Night Live veterans Nasim Pedrad and Jenny Slate on fine form as two contrasting moms. Dr. Seuss' ipsy-dipsy fantasy worlds are ideally suited to the computer animated medium. While not as experimental as Horton Hears a Who and with constant nods to Despicable Me (the cuddle little bears, ducks and fish are obvious albeit amusing stand-ins for the Minions) in danger of making Renaud and Balda look like one-trick ponies, the film's abundance of eye-candy and exhilaratingly silly set-pieces still ranks it among the better Seuss adaptations.