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AP Photo/Universal Pictures
The Lorax, voiced by Danny DeVito, is shown in a scene from the animated film, "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax."

You thneed to see it

Reeling It In

Posted: March 8, 2012 - 9:52am  |  Updated: March 8, 2012 - 9:54am

"The Lorax"
Illumination Entertainment
1 hour, 26 minutes

For someone as prolific and influential as Dr. Seuss was, you'd think the potential for big screen adaptations of his work would be better than it is. As far as I can tell, I've seen all four, count 'em four, major studio efforts to bring his particular brand of wit and wisdom to theaters and the track record is not great. One film was just OK, that being "Horton Hears a Who" from a few years back, one was substandard, but not offensively so ("How the Grinch Stole Christmas") and one was jaw-droppingly awful: "The Cat in the Hat." Of the bunch, only this week's version of Seuss' classic eco-morality play "The Lorax" shows any real spark.

Falling right in line with the previous adaptations, "The Lorax" is a fairly simple story without a complex, multi-layered plot. The Once-ler is a short-sighted entrepreneur who has a great idea for harvesting the beautiful and silky truffula trees. With them he can manufacture the multi-use garment, the thneed. But, when he chops down a tree, he unwittingly summons the Lorax, a small furry creature who "speaks for the trees."

The Lorax urges the Once-ler to cut it out, but the demand for thneeds is high and industry trumps conscience. And so, in less time than it takes to recite "Sam I Am," all the truffula trees are gone, the market for thneeds drops out, and all that's left is ruin.

"I tried to tell you," sniffs the Lorax -- admittedly in rhymey Seuss-speak. But ho! All is not lost. There is one seed left and it's up to us, the reader to take the next step. The book closes with the admonition, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." It's basically a green call to arms. What it's not, however, is a full-length feature film.

In order to bridge that gap, the filmmakers take a tack I've not seen in previous animated kid's films. "The Lorax" plays out on a dual track, split-narrative, with half the film taking place in flashback and the other half running in the present. Clever, and somewhat effective. The flashback portion of the film is essentially the book, with a little bit of added Once-ler backstory. This part of the film works the best.

The rest of the movie takes place in current day Thneedville, a plastic, consumer-based society where the inhabitants revel in each new shiny purchase and the biggest seller is bottled fresh air, used to stave off the pollution looming just outside the walls of town.

Here we find Ted, a plucky kid who wants nothing more than to impress the love of his life -- Audrey. Audrey, who dreams of sky-high truffula trees, real ones, not plastic, and will give her heart to the first boy to make that dream come true. And so our hero, Ted, makes his way out of town, past the corporate goons that would keep Thneedville residents complacent and happy, past the blasted wastelands, to the home of the Once-ler, who spills out his tragic tale.

There's a lot of added detail, but for once, it's not bad. I was interested in Ted's story, and found most of the characters compelling. Even more, I was interested in the Once-ler, a character who is nicely fleshed out in this version. In the book, the character represents greed and short-sightedness, but interestingly, voice-actor Ed Helms, and the script, do a good job of humanizing him. Danny DeVito, as the Lorax, does a fine job with what he has, but, aside from the Once-ler, I was less than impressed with the script. It's not the plot or the story specifics, but rather the dialogue that rings false most of the time. Stunt casting Betty White as Ted's grandmother was more irritating than anything else, and made me ask once again, why are we all kissing up to Betty White? Yeah, "Golden Girls" was funny, but c'mon!

The biggest test of the success of a film like this is the kid-test. My 4-year old, who's gotten quite adept at being a good audience member, was fine, which I expected, but I was less than sure about my 2-year-old daughter. This was her second movie, and the first, "Arthur Christmas" she spent half the time running up and down the aisle hiding from "monsters."

Surprise, surprise, "The Lorax" held her attention to the last, helped somewhat by a generous portion of popcorn, I'm sure. Both my kids enjoyed the film, and my son made sure to let me know that it was a bad idea for the Once-ler to cut down all the trees, so apparently the moral rubbed off, as well. What more can you hope for?
Grade: B+

"The Lorax" is rated PG for mild scares and brief mild language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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