Monday, March 12, 2012

Nature Calls

One of my favorite authors when I was a kid was Theodore Geisel, better known to you and your children as Dr. Seuss. Even if you're not intimately familiar with his work, there's a good chance you at least knew about him, as many of his books were practically required reading for any child growing up. Certainly the modern entertainment industry is aware of this, as many films based on his work have been released over the years, from the live action How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat to the animated Horton Hears a Who. It is the success of Horton Hears a Who that Universal Pictures is hoping to emulate with their latest animated film, Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, a remake of one of the author's lesser-known titles. For all intents and purposes his book on environmentalism, The Lorax was obviously designed to be Universal Pictures' most ambitious animated feature, and to ensure that people would want to see it, they filled the vocal cast with popular talents, including teen star Zac Efron, singer Taylor Swift, and Emmy and Golden Globe winner Danny Devito. The big question going into The Lorax was whether the film would impress parents as well as children. Certainly the trailer provided enough to ensure kids would enjoy the film, but would any full grown adult?

What's going through his head: "I bet he tastes like chicken..."
The town of Thneedville completely fake, as in artificial. There's not a single tree to be found, but most people are more than happy not having those "dirty" things around, ruining he perfection that is their city. All, that is, but for Audrey (Swift), a high-schooler whose only desire is to see a real, living tree, like those she has heard stories about. Eager to impress her, young Ted Wiggins (Efron) journeys outside of town to meet with the Once-ler (Ed Helms), rumored to know what happened to the trees so long ago. And so the Once-ler tells Ted the story of his youth, when greed and short-sightedness caused him to chop down all the Truffula Trees, angering mother nature and her appointed defender of the woods, The Lorax (Devito).

I'm upset. She doesn't look a thing like Taylor Swift!
From beginning to end, it's obvious a lot of thought, effort and care was put into the animation of this motion picture. Year after year, the genre of 3D animation has been routinely dominated by two forces, Pixar and Dreamworks. In recent years however, other animated studios have stepped to the plate, and while 3D animation is hardly a worldwide phenomena (most international cinema still uses traditional styles), more popular titles have been created outside of these big two companies in the past couple of years, most notably last year's Rango and 2010's Despicable Me. In fact, it was the same people (including co-director Chris Renaud) who made Despicable Me that created The Lorax, and it's easy to draw comparisons between the two in the art and animation departments, as well as other things. While there's nobody as physically unique as Gru among the human cast, the team turns their creative sides to building the unique creatures of the forest, from singing fish who walk on land to marshmallow-loving bears. By creating a unique ecology that thrive on the trees in the story, the filmmakers make creatures so effective that they risk overtaking their human (or at least speaking) counterparts in conveying the message of the film.

Betty White, meanwhile, looks exactly the same.
Of course, that's my first problem with The Lorax: the message. We're aware from the first moment that not having real trees around Thneedville is a big deal, and how deforestation used to (and often still does) happen due to the demands of big business. FOX News and other conservatives have voiced their dismissal of this film as being anti-industry, but the fact of the matter is that blatant deforestation for purposes of greed still happens, and exposing this idea to children to perhaps push for a different way isn't a bad idea in the slightest. Of course, when that's the entirety of your message, it gets damned annoying being an adult in the theater who already gets it, but is still being preached to almost non-stop for an entire two-thirds of the movie. The sad fact is that this film was excellent in 2008, when it was called Wall-E. Obviously the screenwriters figured they were reaching out to a more juvenile crowd, so repeating the message infinitely was objective number one, and in that regard they can consider themselves successful.

Beast versus... Beast... which will come out on top??
My second complaint about The Lorax is, well... it's a musical. Now, normally, I'm not against music in animated features. Several of my favorite Disney animated films growing up had substantial musical scores, and the simple fact that they had music never detracted from their quality. Of course, those were mostly GOOD musical numbers, as opposed to the stinkers that The Lorax dishes up. While the ensemble opening song "Thneedville" is a decent enough number, the quality of the songs drastically falls off, sinking as low as the hip-hop inspired "How Bad Can I Be?", featuring a VERY white Helms doing his best (or worst) attempt to rap. I've never found the idea of the whitest white men rapping to be even slightly humorous, but Hollywood can't seem to get enough of it. Overall, the musical score is barely entertaining, not worth the price of admission. And on a side note, how do you have Taylor Swift in a vocal role without getting her to record an original song for you?

"And THAT is where babies come from..."
At least the voice acting follows in the quality footsteps of the visual effects. Efron is definitely showing his mettle as an up-and-coming actor, proving himself the best thing to come out of the tween-beloved High School Musical series. Helms also charms as both a present day and flashback Once-ler. Helms has come a long way after breaking out on The Office, and is wringing everything he can out of that starring turn. Obviously, though, Devito is and was always meant to be the center of attention, and his rendition of the perpetually-cranky Lorax is perfectly written, seemingly tailored to Devito's unique vocal abilities. The only complaint I had about his performance is that there's not nearly ENOUGH of it, as the character disappears for the final act, and even his regular presence doesn't generate quite enough "oomph" behind it, again largely a fault of the screenwriters. The film has no slouches, and standouts include Betty White, Rob Riggle and Jenny Slate in major roles. The weakest by far is Swift, but even she is at least serviceable, if not guaranteed any awards in the near future.

If only there was an Academy Award for Best 'Stache... we can dream...
For all the good Dr. Seuss' The Lorax intends, it can't escape the fact that it is a film expressly geared towards small children. This isn't really a problem per se, but it can be if you're anything other than a sub-10-year-old child trying to sit through 95 minutes of great visuals, obvious messages and lousy music. It's a mixed bag, and while I enjoyed myself overall, the film was no better than #9 for 2012. While it's a perfectly acceptable movie you can take your kids to see, I wouldn't recommend The Lorax for anything more than just that.

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