MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Lorax,’ cuddly cartoon agitprop the Unabomber would’ve loved

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“The Lorax,” the animated 3-D feature based on the Dr. Seuss book, is a movie the Unabomber would have loved.

While the film’s marketing makes it look like a feel-good parable teaching responsible environmental stewardship, the reality is quite different. This isn’t a gentle sendup in which conservation triumphs over avarice and individual profit. It’s not George Bailey versus Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Instead, “The Lorax” presents a radical critique of the idea that humans have a claim to build wealth out of natural resources.

I first became aware of the hype around the new animated version of “The Lorax” while changing my son’s diapers. The Dr. Seuss character is part of a product-placement campaign with Seventh Generation, the eco-friendly paper and soap company.

The Lorax, an orange-hued, mustachioed woodland creature with a cantankerous bearing that belies its cuddly appearance, appears on the front of diapers and on other Seventh Generation products, offering the endorsement “Lorax approved.” The use of the character to promote sustainably manufactured products points to the essential hypocrisy and crude stupidity of the new film.

“The Lorax” is the story of the environmental devastation of Thneed-Ville, a walled corporate city-state ruled in totalitarian fashion by Mayor O’Hare (voiced by Rob Riggle), the head of O’Hare Air, which supplies the polluted metropolis with clean air.

Thneed-Ville is hopelessly polluted, thanks to an industrialist called the Once-Ler (Ed Helms), who marketed a utility-garment product woven from the silk-soft threads of the Truffula tree. This product, called the Thneed, proved so popular that its inventor resorted to a scorched-earth policy to keep up with demand, eventually denuding the region of trees, turning a bucolic vale into a postapocalyptic nightmare.

There is something about arguing with the premise of a children’s movie that makes one feel distinctly like an idiot, but the particulars here are important. “The Lorax” is relentless in propagandizing how the use of natural resources to create consumer products is inevitably catastrophic. There even is a song in which the Once-Ler defends his practices by invoking social Darwinism.

Yet to go by the details supplied in the film, Truffula trees grow fast enough to be harvested and replanted using basic, centuries-old forest-management techniques. To go back to the product-placement scheme I cited earlier, the products that bear the “Lorax approved” slogan are themselves unimaginable within the context of the Lorax movie.

The movie concerns itself with the efforts of young Ted (Zac Efron) to sneak past Thneed-Ville’s surveillance apparatus to meet secretly with the Once-Ler (now living in poverty and exile outside of town) to learn the secret history of Thneed-Ville and, if possible, find a way to revive the extinct Truffula species.

Ted isn’t motivated by ideology — he’s trying to impress a cute older girl named Audrey (Taylor Swift) who wants a real tree more than anything. Ironically, those parents loopy enough to want their kids to be indoctrinated with the wing-nut message of “The Lorax” might find this plot point to be a bit sexist and even “heteronormative.”

Visually, the movie is a treat. Vivid colors, of both the primordial forest and the plastic, prefab town of Thneed-Ville, pop off the screen. Danny DeVito’s voicing gives the Lorax a kind of irascible charisma. The action, especially the drawn-out chase scenes in which Ted flees from O’Hare’s thugs on a motor scooter, are thrilling and well-imagined. The woodland creatures are cuddly and sympathetic, and the Truffula trees are gorgeous — slight, bendy trunks topped with tufts of silky plumage.

Any aesthetic appeal the movie holds, however, is outweighed by its reductive and self-defeating ideology. It’s the quintessence of limousine liberalism, with the studio looking to squeeze a few bucks out of the righteous indignation of moviegoers.

One wonders: If the filmmakers are serious about this message, why they are charging admission? And if they’re not serious, what is the point of this cuddly piece of cartoon agitprop?

★½

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