- - Monday, March 5, 2012

Critics were lukewarm to “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” but moviegoers didn’t pay them any mind, happily “biggering” its ticket sales to a new early March sales record.

The computer-animated film took in more than $70 million during box office opening weekend. According to the movie review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, professional movie critics gave it just a 57 percent positive rating, yet 73 percent of normal viewers liked it, and brought friends, suggesting strong word-of-mouth. The first showing I tried to go to Sunday afternoon was sold out.

“The Lorax” has touched off ideological skirmishes intermittently since its publication in 1971. It has been pulled from school library shelves over concerns that it libels loggers (who replant, on net, more trees than they cut down) and lambasted by critics left and right. The new film adaptation, however, has provoked a new level of controversy. Some complain of its slick commercialism and commodification, others of its clumsy green messaging.

Does the film’s polarizing message carry long-term risks for a beloved franchise in children’s literature? The Dr. Seuss books have served generations of American children as a delightful introduction to the joys of reading. Can a brand that has charmed youngsters and parents of every political persuasion afford to be tainted by association with blatant ideological advocacy marketed under its name?

Liberal Mother Jones blogger Kate Sheppard wrote that environmentalists were “having a (rather justified) heart attack about the fact that ‘The Lorax’ is now being used to cross-promote a new SUV.” Mazda was using the movie to sell the new Seussified CX-5. One commercial featured a cartoon version of this SUV driving through a grove of Truffula trees. “The ads claim that the car is ‘Truffula tree friendly’ whatever that is supposed to mean,” she complained.

The film, she wrote, “includes a musical number … about how capitalism is awesome and everyone needs a Thneed,” the silly, woven all-purpose product made from tufts of the Truffula trees “which plays over a scene of his (the Once-ler’s) company decimating the landscape with all its biggering and biggering. It includes a flash of a billboard featuring an image of the Lorax, who is definitely not happy about this situation, sporting a Thneed under the headline ‘Lorax approved!’ ” This obvious irony has been repressed by the film’s marking department, “which has backed a long list of 70 ‘Lorax-approved’ launch partners.” Greens are not at all happy about the attempts by companies to use an anti-consumerist tale to flog their wares, no matter how eco-friendly they might be.

But while the left has bemoaned the film’s commercialization of its own anti-commercial message, conservatives have deplored the message itself. Fox News talk show host Lou Dobbs roped together “The Lorax” and another recent animated movie, “The Secret World of Arrietty” (based on the Mary Norton novel “The Borrowers”), and argued that they were not-so-subtle attempts by Hollywood to “indoctrinate our children” to turn them into little environmentalists who despise capitalism.

The controversy is rooted in the book itself. Many Dr. Seuss books have an official moral-to-the-story. Take, for, example, “Green Eggs and Ham.” Moral: Try it, you might like it.

“The Lorax,” however, is one of the few “message” books Theodor Seuss Geisel ever wrote. It was not just a story, it was a call to action. At the end of the book, the Once-ler tells a young boy, who is a stand-in for all of us, to take the last seed of a Truffula tree and go plant it. This, our mysterious villain-narrator hopes, will begin to reverse the damage he has wrought. But this is an awkward resolution, a triumph of message over story: If the Once-ler is filled with regret over having despoiled the land by cutting down all the Truffula trees in pursuit of profit, why doesn’t he just plant it himself? Because it wouldn’t leave the reader with marching orders, that’s why.

In Nature in 2011, contrarian environmental writer and mother Emma Marris called the children’s book “a kind of ‘Silent Spring’ for the playground set,” and did not mean that entirely as a compliment. She confessed that she was “hesitant about introducing the book to my young daughter,” because the book “puts a lot of responsibility on small shoulders” that may not be ready for it.

She described the book’s prophet, the Lorax himself, as an “impassioned little nag” and a “parody of a misanthropic ecologist.” Universal Studios saw the Lorax’s nagging as a possible turnoff. It tries to make the message more palatable by leavening it with humor. This Lorax is voiced by comic actor Danny DeVito, and he is more cynic than prophet.

The movie makes the Lorax seem the voice of reason by making the voices of business sound completely mad. It’s not enough that the Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms) chops all of the Truffula trees down in a fit of short-sighted, family-driven greed. He also delivers a song about it, dressed in a costume that has him looking like a cross between the Riddler and free money guy Matthew Lesko.

But wait, there’s more! In this version of the story, we meet Mr. O’Hare, an enviro-apocalyptic profiteer who sells filtered air to the residents of a completely artificial Thneedville and tries his very best to keep even one new tree from being planted, lest it cut into his market share.

In its original form, “The Lorax” seemed plausible in broad strokes, if not strictly accurate. At one point, industry really did operate with less restraint, and major private and public clean-up efforts were needed. Dr. Seuss’s Once-ler isn’t so much malevolent as thoughtless. He doesn’t realize the great harm that he is doing, until it is too late, and the despoliation gives the Lorax’s preachments force.

Since the famed writer-illustrator’s death in 1991, all Dr. Seuss products undergo the intense vetting of the Seuss estate, especially by widow Audrey Geisel, who has signed off on the movie wholeheartedly. She insisted to Forbes recently that the conservative charges against the movie ring false. She agreed that ” ‘The Lorax’ is meant to educate rather than to indoctrinate.”

But she’s got it backward, I think, and her moral judgment has colored her creative one. Her husband’s creation was purposeful propaganda for a point of view that managed to be both rooted and timeless. It still seems relevant, not as an accurate picture of man’s management of nature but as a warning against thoughtlessness and backsliding. The latest slick attempt to update the story is a modern crowd-pleaser, to be sure, but it already seems dated.

Jeremy Lott, editor of Real Clear Books, is writing a book about death.

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