I arrived at the theatre to see The Lorax alone. Ticket prices were $10 for the regular version, $14 for 3D, or $17 for IMAX. I would have liked to bring the family with me, but with tickets, popcorn (slathered with butter-flavored oil), and a small drink (made with high fructose corn syrup) for the four of us the total cost would have been $75 to watch a 90 minute cartoon. Occasionally worth it for a night of good entertainment. But not for an hour and a half of being preached at in some preposterous church of over the top environmentalism.

(Unfortunately I understand how people think on the internet. There is no middle ground. You can’t, for example, be a person who is so serious about his charitable giving to Conservation International for the last several years that he has it automatically drafted from his bank account every month, but also at the same time believe that most environmentalists suffer from a lack of pragmatism and need to focus their considerable energy on actually getting things done rather than on pie-in-the-sky ventures whose main aim seems to be raising money but in the end only ends up dividing people and scaring them off of your cause. [Whew, that was a long sentence!] But for the sake of this review let’s assume even though I have problems with the film I am not anti-environment and do not want kids to drink dirty water and breathe dirty air.)

Ted lives in the town of Thneedville with his mom and grandmother. Thneedville is manufactured to be perfect, with no filthy things like trees or nature to get in the way. Everything they need is mass produced and sold to them — including fresh air, which is sold by the bottle, since pollution is a big, but swept under the rug, problem. Audrey dreams of seeing a real tree and Ted, in a bid to impress his crush, sets off outside the walls of Thneedville to find one for her. There he meets the Once-ler, who tells him the story of the disappearance of all the trees and the eponymous guardian of the forest the Lorax.

Without even getting into the heavy-handed environmental aspects of the film, there are other basic story issues. The biggest might be obvious from the synopsis. Is this the story of Ted and Audrey, or of the Once-ler, or of the Lorax? To be honest, I’m not sure. The Lorax gets the title treatment but relatively little story. The film is bookended by Ted’s plotline and he drives the climax. And the Once-ler seems to get the bulk of the film’s running time. By the end it’s all a muddled hodge-podge of story bits woven together however they’ll fit.

But let’s get to the real issue. There is nothing wrong with making a film with an environmental message. Wall-E showed the right way to do it, where the message is there if you want to take it, but telling a good story trumps proselytizing the audience. Happy Feet showed how to do it the wrong way, by hiding the message from the audience until they were captive in their seats. Unfortunately The Lorax finds another way to do it wrong: by making it feel like you’re being preached at rather than entertained, and doing it in a completely intellectually dishonest way to boot. Like arguing on the internet, the filmmakers ignore the middle ground and go straight for the extreme. The idiot population hates anything natural and only loves the artificial. Corporations are all evil and only want to destroy the environment so they can fill their greedy wallets.

Even the pro-environment side is shown in the extreme. In one scene a character cuts down a single tree and we’re treated to a 2-3 minute funeral for it. And no it’s not meant to be funny! While most environmentalists are rightly against the rampant and irresponsible destruction of forested lands, even the most hardcore probably would not go so far as to say any use of wood requires a funeral for the tree! There are so many logical problems in their setup — fallacies of extension, false dichotomies, fallacious reductio ad absurdum — that it’s hard to even write this review and take them seriously, which is how I assume they want to be taken given their message.

Just one example of how the film story ignores the real story behind the so-called bad guys: In the movie the Once-ler cuts down trees for his business with no regard to replacing them. But in real life trees are the ultimate renewable resource. Companies are not normally stupid with their source of income. And for at least the past century the companies that cut down trees for a living in the US have been most responsible for planting trees. (Here’s a link from Mother Nature News with the details, for those who want to toss me into a pool of toxic waste byproducts from my polluting website!) Now I’m not saying you can’t exaggerate your antagonist in a movie for dramatic effect. But if your movie is meant to be a propaganda piece aimed at kids in order to get them to subscribe to your views at an early age rather than just a popcorn piece of entertainment, then you have a higher standard to uphold.

And one more complaint about the environmental message. It wasn’t even internally consistent! The Once-ler cuts down a tree so the Lorax pulls a stunt that almost kills him in return? Eye for an eye doesn’t seem very pro-nature to me! Also, the forest animals love them some marshmallows and pancakes. But marshmallows are about as unnatural a food as you can get! What about the factories required to churn out those sticky, squishy food-like products? And what of all the poor wheat plants that have to be cut down to make the flour to make the pancakes? Who speaks for the wheat?

Ok, with that out of the way you may be surprised by the rest of this review. Other than the story, the film was terrifically made! (Which is like that old punchline, “but other than that how did you enjoy the play, Mr. Lincoln?”) The animation was beautiful and had a wonderful fluidity of motion to it. The character designs were unique enough to be fun and interesting without being over the top. The music was great — catchy songs and nice performances. And the voice acting for the most part was top notch, especially Ed Helms as the Once-ler and Danny DeVito as the Lorax. Hopefully all the talent on this crew will be put to better use on a more worthwhile story next time.

Since most people get really defensive when they think their views (especially those that could be considered political in nature) are being assailed let me assure you none of this was meant to be taken that way. The fact is I do consider myself to be on the side of the trees. But so many others on my side are just a little too overzealous in their approach and it makes the rest of us look bad! There is a right way to expose people to the rightness of the environmental message. This was not it. If you want to sit in Sunday School and listen to a moral lesson, that is one thing. But to plunk down a significant amount of money to be entertained, especially for a family that could find a better use for that cash, it’s a shame that this is what you get in return. It’s all the more vexing seeing as it is a massive corporation who spent well over a hundred million dollars on producing and marketing this film that is telling us our rampant consumerism is the problem, while they laugh all the way to the bank.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

The Lorax
Universal, llumination
March 2, 2012
86 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda