Review: Dr. Seuss adaptation ‘The Lorax’ aims high and makes it partway there

It is an unenviable task to adapt the work of Dr. Seuss from page to screen, and for the most part, I think his work has resisted full-length feature adaptation with a vengeance.

I mean, when you look at a film like “Cat In The Hat,” it’s hard to imagine that the source material is any good at all.  It’s a coarse, gross, vulgar fart joke of a movie, and it should have, by any conventional wisdom, killed the idea of making Dr. Seuss movies.  But “Horton Hears A Who” seemed to be a major course correction, and their expansion of the world that Seuss created felt like a fairly organic way to approach his work.

With “The Lorax,” Illumination Entertainment has done a solid job of trying to preserve the most important parts of the book and its themes, and there is a lot of it that honors Seuss.  I think kids will enjoy this film, and my own kids, who have been raised as Seuss-faithful as possible, liked the way the story expanded to fill out a feature running time.  I had more issues with the new material, and I think adults will be less likely to just accept the film as a whole.

It is a nice nod to the author that the young lovers whose story drives the film are named Ted (Zac Efron) and Audrey (Taylor Swift), and the simple desire to impress a girl leads Ted to a larger understand of the world around him, something I think could work.  The film’s villain, while hilariously designed, is a little too overtly slimy to fit into what Seuss wrote, though.  The book is about how moral compromise and environmental ruin sneak up on people and businesses, and how each action has ramifications that must be considered.  When you create a character like O’Hare (Rob Riggle) who takes such glee out of being awful and villainous, you undermine the central story of the Once-ler (Ed Helms) and his slow slide into being a bad guy.

Honestly, because there’s so much new material crammed in on all sides, the story of the Once-ler almost becomes an afterthought, and that’s the biggest problem with the movie.  In order to show the story of how compromise sneaks up on us, it needs to be gradual.  We need to see someone struggling to do the right thing and still seeing the way those choices add up to something wrong.  The Once-ler is an inventor, someone who finds a need people didn’t even realize they had, and the thing he creates brings evident joy to people.  That’s not overtly bad, the way “charging people exorbitant fees to breathe clean air” is.  It’s just that the product the Once-ler creates has an environmental impact he never considered, and in his pursuit of his goals, he stops paying attention to everything outside of a very narrow window.  I wish they’d spent more time just on the Once-ler telling his story to Ted and Ted taking up the challenge of fixing the world without introducing an external force like O’Hare.  I think it’s enough of a challenge to try to pick up after the generations prior to us without having to have a bad guy snarling in Ted’s face.

Visually, the film takes its cues from Seuss, and there is a sense of almost complete  overload in the colors and the textures and the crazy shapes.  Like “Horton,” you’ll know this is the world of Seuss when you look at it.  Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda’s work as directors is driven almost entirely by the script by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, so the weaknesses in the film are built in, and there wasn’t much Renaud and Balda could have done to change that.  The work by the cast is good, underplayed for the most part.  John Powell’s score casts an appropriate mood over the proceedings.  In every technical way, the film is well-made, and like I said, young audiences are most likely going to enjoy the experience across the board.  I just know that for myself, some of the dramatic choices and some of the real world promotional partner decisions color my ability to fully endorse an adaptation what is, in my opinion, one of the most significant of the books that Seuss left behind.  It’s “The Lorax,” and so I do hold it to a very high standard.

“The Lorax” opens tomorrow.