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Dr. Seuss' The Lorax
From the creators of Despicable Me.

Starring: Danny DeVito, Zac Efron, Taylor Swift & Ed Helms
Directed By: Chris Renaud & Kyle Balda
Screenplay By: Ken Daurio & Cinco Paul
Based on a Book By: Dr. Seuss
Produced By: Chris Meledandri & Janet Healy
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Rating: PG
Running Time: 94 minutes
Website: theloraxmovie.com
Budget: $70 million (estimated)
Genre: Animated/Family
Release Date: March 2, 2012

Ignore the billing above the title – while Dr. Seuss' The Lorax may feature the same characters, settings and major plot points of the 40-year-old book of the same name, it still manages to betray the good doctor's spirit at nearly every opportunity. As in the original book, the story centers on a conversation between a young boy and a mysterious creature known as the Once-ler, who shares a cautionary tale about respecting the environment. That's about where the similarities end.

In the film version, the boy is named Ted (Zac Efron, High School Musical), a resident of Thneedville, a synthetic city of plastic whose citizens are forced to purchase bottled air to breathe. Despite all this, Ted's only concern in life is the pursuit of his beautiful neighbor Audrey (Taylor Swift, Valentine's Day), whose wish to see a real tree spurs him to escape the city's fortified walls to locate the Once-ler, the only person in the world who may still know where to find a living tree.

Yes, person. In an effort to illustrate to children that people are the greatest threat to nature, the producers changed the Once-ler from an unknowable green Seussian monster into a lanky, electric-guitar-slinging yokel voiced by “The Office” star Ed Helms (No, they do not explain why his name is still the Once-ler in a world where every other human in the story has an actual human name). When his miracle invention requires the killing of colorful, spindly Truffula trees, the Once-ler finds himself confronted by the Lorax, a squat orange curmudgeon who serves as the protector of the forest.

As voiced by Danny DeVito, the Lorax is much less a magical, living conscience of nature itself and much more, you know, Danny DeVito. In a jarring bit of genre mashup, the Lorax rallies the impossibly-cute forest inhabitants to help him dispatch of (read: murder) the Once-ler in a short series of Looney Tunes-style visual gags that are abandoned as quickly as they are introduced. Before long, the Once-ler's family arrives to help expand his business, and his tale of descent into evil and greed is recounted in a series of bouncy, happy-go-lucky musical numbers (and a wardrobe change to a green-suited version of Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka getup).

The folks at Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me, Hop) put forth a tremendous amount of effort to translate the unmistakable line art of Dr. Seuss into fully-rendered, three-dimensional computer animation, but have only managed a soulless counterfeit in service of a story that substitutes postmodern snark for classic Seussian whimsy. The gibbering yellow Minions of Despicable Me have been replaced by a forest-ful of bears, squirrels, birds and fish, whose hyperkinetic visual gags elicit laughs, but are ultimately sideshow distractions from the anemic story being told.

Instead of properly developing their small cast, the filmmakers pile on a series of visually-interesting but wholly-needless supporting characters, like the Once-ler's hillbilly family, a pair of hulking bodyguards or the ad men who propose selling bottled air with a TV spot highly reminiscent of beer ads. Meanwhile, Ted is a shockingly impassive protagonist, which makes him the perfect person to embark on an adventure without any actual peril, tension or conflict. At least he's ostensibly the film's hero. Poor Audrey, being a girl, has to settle for being defined entirely by Ted's obsession with her. Even the Lorax himself is so ineffectual and sullen that he gives the audience little reason to root for him, outside of being the film's namesake.

There is a magic and a wonder in a Dr. Seuss book that speaks directly to the child in everybody, without ever speaking to them like a child. But even the tree-huggingest hippie or most cynical PETA spokesperson would probably concede that Dr. Seuss' The Lorax is shockingly heavy-handed in its messaging. It's one thing to demonstrate the effects of deforestation on the landscape, but when you're slathering cuddly, wide-eyed creatures in pools of toxic sludge, showcasing glowing, irradiated babies in musical numbers or revealing your callous, despotic villain as a pathetic man-child with a Napoleon complex, you should probably take a few deep breaths, count to ten and consult the source material for guidance.

2 Stars (out of 5)

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