Like "An Inconvenient Truth" for the 12-and-under crowd, "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" is a cautionary environmental tale with a thin veneer of entertainment on top. With its cotton-candy-colored palette of orange, pink and purple truffula trees, it looks like a bowl of fuzzy Froot Loops. But it goes down like an order of oatmeal.
Sure, it's good for you. It's just not terribly good.
Based on Seuss' 1971 picture book - the darkest and most cynical of the author/illustrator's oeuvre - this musical adaptation, in eye-popping 3-D CGI , is undeniably less gloomy than the original. For starters, the character of the Once-ler - the book's narrator, whose regret-tinged reminiscence sets Seuss' story in motion and provides its singular focus - is no longer the protagonist.
Played by Ed Helms, the Once-ler now shares billing with a plucky kid named Ted (Zac Efron), a character vastly expanded from one in the book. Ted's crush on a pretty neighbor, Audrey (Taylor Swift), now frames the entire narrative, turning it into an episode of a Nickelodeon sitcom. The movie jumps back and forth, jauntily, between Ted's courtship of Audrey and flashbacks to the Once-ler's misspent youth.
It's still kind of a drag.
The film opens in the polluted, futuristic town of Thneedville, where trees don't grow anymore, and where the only fresh air comes in plastic jugs, bottled by an evil midget business magnate named Aloysius O'Hare (Rob Riggle). He looks less like a Dr. Seuss character than Edna Mode from "The Incredibles."
Because Audrey is a tree-hugger with a nostalgic pining for the greener pastures of the past, Ted sets out to find her a real live tree. Acting on a tip from his grandmother (Betty White), who still remembers the once-plentiful truffula trees that used to grow around Thneedville, Ted sets out in search of the Once-ler, an embittered recluse who lives in a decrepit house on the outskirts of town and who is rumored to know where all the truffula trees went.
He ought to know. Decades ago, the Once-ler chopped them all down in order to manufacture sweater-like garments called thneeds that he knitted out of the trees' silky fiber. But what formed the heart and soul of the Seuss story - a powerful if unsubtle fable of thoughtless deforestation - is now mere back story to Ted's effort to get the girl and defeat the bad guy. In addition to the introduction of an unnecessary love interest, the movie builds an entirely new villain out of O'Hare, whose business is, for obvious reasons, threatened by trees, which produce oxygen for free.
In the hands of co-directors Chris Reynaud and Kyle Balda and co-writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, Seuss' slender though eloquent fable has morphed into something unwieldy and manic. It's simultaneously silly and preachy, and with precious room for little fun. Danny DeVito's Lorax - the mystical, mustached critter who speaks "for the trees," and who struggles, futilely, to stop the Once-ler - is even more messianic here than in the book, traveling back and forth between Earth and the clouds in a shaft of celestial light, like a furry Jesus.
Seuss' book may have been a heavy-handed downer, but at least its heart was in the right place. "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" is a movie that progressives can feel good about taking their kids to, without actually having a good time.