When you say “Johnny Depp as Dr. Seuss,” the first image that flashes at this point is one of his patented weird-voiced eccentric larger-than-life performances.
That’s not who Theodor Geisel was, though, and if Universal and Illumination Entertainment are serious about making a biopic that honors the remarkable life and creative output of this man who has helped shape the early imaginary lives of 50 years worth of kids, then I’m genuinely excited. This could be one of the coolest things Depp is currently attached to, and the hiring of Keith Bunin as a writer indicates that they’re treating this as a serious drama, not a wacky kid’s film.
I find it interesting that people right away assume that this is going to be another performance like The Mad Hatter or Willy Wonka or Captain Jack Sparrow. Why? Dr. Seuss was not one of his own characters. He was a guy who lived from one end of the 20th Century to the other, working in advertising, publishing political cartoons and propaganda work during WWII, and finally helping to redefine children’s literature with his classic works that are still read around the world.
When my wife first told me that we were expecting a child, I was overwhelmed by the news, and I found myself right away thinking about what sort of culture I wanted to hand down to my kids. The first book I ever bought for Toshi was about two days later, and I picked up a big giant collection of thirteen of his best-known books. We still read at least one of those stories from that book at least once a week, and Toshi has a favorite Seuss book for every occasion. He’s grown up learning the embedded moral lessons of stories like “The Lorax” and “The Sneetches,” and I hope he’s internalizing the material the way I did as a kid. Like with the work of Jim Henson, I never understood that I was being given moral lessons because I loved the work so much. And his work will continue to find its way to the screen, like in next year’s big-screen version of “The Lorax.”
But for many people, the real Ted Geisel is a mystery, and they know very little about who he was. His early creative life was spent mostly working in the advertising world, and then when WWII began, his work became overtly political. He believed firmly that America needed to step up and get into the war to stop Hitler and Mussolini, and he also tackled the naked racism of the age as well. Once America did get into the war, Geisel started contributing artwork to posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board, and then finally joined the Army himself. He became the commander of the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the US Army Air Forces. His “Private Snafu” shorts were seen by almost ever enlisted man at the time, and he made films that focused on the role America would play in Europe and Asia after the war as peace became a priority again.
He won Academy Awards for both Documentary Feature and Animated Short Film, and after the war, he started to focus on his kid’s books again. His one foray into feature films, “The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T” is a wild and gorgeous film that was a total disaster when it was first released. This seemed to motivate him to really master the art of writing for kids, and when he moved into the phase of his career where he was writing for beginning readers, with books like “Green Eggs and Ham” and “The Cat In The Hat,” he created classics that are almost like literary magic tricks, using less than 300 different words to weave these amazing beautiful classics.
His personal life was far more adult than his public work, and his first wife ended up committing suicide for a number of reasons, not the least of which was his infidelity. The woman he was seeing on the side became his second wife, and they stayed married until his death. I find it amazing that he never had children of his own, but I suppose when kids around the world are raised on your work, there’s no need. In some ways, all of us who learned to read from his work are his kids, deeply affected by who he was and how he saw the world.
There’s a lot of potential here, and I look forward to seeing what Depp and Illumination come up with. The real key is finding a director, and I hope Depp doesn’t just hand this off to one of the obvious suspects. Then again, this sort of material would force Tim Burton back into an “Ed Wood” situation, where he can’t just lean on the outrageous. Whatever happens, it’s a fascinating project, and a subject that could easily be the foundation of something great.