'The Lorax'

There's a reason Two and a Half Men and NCIS: Cabo San Lucas are among the top-rated shows in the country, and it all begins with movies like The Lorax. Many of our habits are ingrained in us when we're very young, and so it can't be an accident that when children are exposed en masse to The Loraxes of the world as they are beginning to shape an identity, they wind up appreciating the least whimsical, least clever, most vapid and most superficial forms of entertainment when they are adults.

The Lorax, of course, is an adaptation of a beloved children's book by Dr. Seuss, and you can say a number of positive things about the job done by Illumination Media and directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda in translating his tale to the silver screen:

  • It has the look and feel of Dr. Seuss, from the signature facial shapes and expressions used in all of his books to the Truffula Trees.
  • It spares little time and expends a ton of energy to make sure you get the message of Seuss' fable loud and clear -- that a culture of consumption is dangerous to the natural world.
  • And, it is going to make an absolute boatload of money, with early projections of a weekend box office haul of more than $70 million making it the biggest opening so far in 2012.

Where it misses the mark is in taking the second point to its most illogical extreme.

Ted Wiggins, voiced by Zac Efron, is the protagonist of this stretched-out tale, and in trying to impress Audrey, his elder love interest voiced by pop star Taylor Swift, he leaves the polluted town of Thneed-Ville, where clean air is sold like bottled water, and meets the faceless hermit the Once-ler. The Once-ler, voiced by Ed Helms, is Ted's lone hope for procuring a long-missing Truffula Tree that Audrey desires, but before he can get his hands on a seedling and, presumably, unlock her heart, he must endure the Once-ler's tale of how Thneed-Ville and environs went from an idyllic Truffula forest to an all-plastic metropolis of misery.

In short, the Once-ler begins chopping down Truffula Trees in the name of commercial success and the yellow-mustachioed, walking-orange-walrus-looking titular character, voiced by Danny DeVito, appears and tries to stop him, ultimately unsuccessfully. Once Ted has heard all this, he begins to see Truffula Trees as more than just a path to Audrey's heart and, as you might guess, Thneed-Ville ends up the better for it.

Now, there's nothing wrong on the surface here. That's a pretty straightforward plot that seems to encapsulate the spirit of Dr. Seuss' book. The problems arise in the execution. There is absolutely nothing subtle about The Lorax. It is an unappetizing mix of slapstick humor and preachy, pedantic, hammer-meets-anvil reminders of the overarching theme, complete with awkward musical numbers. Fables aren't supposed to be so direct -- Dr. Seuss certainly never was -- and in that sense this is a massive failure.

In fairness, I think that case has been overstated in the critical world, likely because of a tone-deaf marketing campaign that prominently featured a car company (Mazda, which sells a product that pollutes) and because of sentimental attachment to the source material. I never read The Lorax as a child, so that's probably why I didn't feel quite as offended as some folks seemed to be by the movie version.

Anyway, honing in on the marketing campaign or the tainting of one of Dr. Seuss' works on screen seems to miss the forest for the Truffula Trees. Put another way, why do movie studios that make movies for children persist in creating such lowbrow, saccharine entertainment? The Lorax was FOX News' so-called "liberal agenda" brought to life and put in plain view. It shouldn't have been, and, more importantly, it didn't have to be. (Just go and watch WALL-E if you disagree.)

Kids are a whole heck of a lot smarter than we give them credit for most of the time, and in that sense filmmakers insult their intelligence when they slap together beautiful computer animation, an all-star voice acting cast, slapstick humor and thinly veiled polemic and call it a day. This happens all the time, by the way -- pretty much whenever the movie isn't made by Pixar Studios, though even the Cars franchise is guilty of this.

It does a disservice to young moviegoers, who can appreciate more subtle themes and humor and life lessons if you just give them a chance, and it surely is torturous to their parents. It doesn't seem that hard to make a movie that both kids and adults will enjoy; Disney does it all the time. But it does seem to take more work and more thought than whatever went into The Lorax, and when it's that simple to make $70 million in a weekend, well, you know why we get more of The Lorax than we do of Up.

Adults aren't any different, of course -- how else to explain The Vow being the top grossing movie of the year so far? I guess what I'm saying is there's a reason America can't have nice things, and it starts with the way we handle young Americans.