There is a concerted effort in Hollywood today that I take as a personal affront (yes, I do take everything personally), to destroy everything I loved as a child. Beauty and the Beast? Let’s put it in 3D! The Grinch Who Stole Christmas? Some terrifying make-up and toss Jim Carrey in with both feet! Horton Hears a Who? Remove all political commentary and stir. Alice in Wonderland? Massive rewrites and some random battle scenes (although I did kinda enjoy it). Cat in the Hat? I … I can’t.
And now The Lorax. I have warm memories of Dr. Seuss, like so many people my age. I credit him with some of my more socialist leanings (that and Pete Seeger’s Protest Songs for Children, but that’s another kettle of fish). I was first introduced to The Lorax via a cartoon from 1971, narrated by Eddie Albert. While I am not a big animation buff, there is something so simple and elegant about the animated drawings of the book and the added musical numbers. The faceless Once-ler, characterized only by his long-gloved arms and big cigar, tells the story of the Lorax to a little boy who comes inquiring. Viewing it again just the other day, I was still moved to tears. Yes, the message (environmentalism and anti-consumerism) is fairly straight forward, but the beautiful thing about the cartoon is how eloquently it is presented; it is one of those cartoons that can be equally entertaining to adults and children. It does not condemn all forms of capitalism; merely the needless consumption that results in the destruction not only of the Lorax’s home and beloved trees, but also the destruction of the Once-ler himself. The Once-ler creates the thneed, a product of many uses (none of them useful), out of the tufts at the top of the truffula trees. The Lorax warns him, again and again, that his factory is destroying the animals, the landscape and the trees themselves. At the end of it all, the Once-ler has cut down all the trees, can no longer produce his thneed, and the Lorax must leave his home, along with the rest of the wildlife. The final image, of the little orange dude sadly picking himself up and flying out through a hole in the smog of industry has stuck with me.
Allow me now to compare that to the bright and bubbly images of inappropriately named Dr Seuss’s The Lorax. The charming jokes (‘You wouldn’t hit a woman!’ ‘That’s a woman?’ Hilarious!); the celebrity cameos (Taylor effing Swift and Zac Efron); the terrible, terrible music. Far from the slightly jumpy animation and simplicity of the original cartoon, The Lorax looks big and loud and shiny. A.O. Scott called it ‘a noisy, useless piece of junk, reverse-engineered into something resembling popular art in accordance with the reigning imperatives of marketing and brand extension’. All of which I can actually forgive; I lived through Despicable Me and three out of four Shrek features, I can live through this. Then this came along:
That’s right. The Lorax loves cars. It’s ‘Truffula Tree friendly’. Never mind that a character meant to remind us of our dependence on this planet and its dependence on us has been turned into a shiny CGI peanut with a mustache. He gave voice to the voiceless (the trees and the fish and the little bears) and is now giving voice to a car company. Cars. Not just any cars, either, but an effing SUV. As Professor Farnsworth would say: I don’t want to live on this planet any more.
Admittedly, the Mazda is probably is more environmentally sound than, say, the car I currently drive. But that’s not really the point. It’s the ugly, rank cynicism of the thing. Using the Lorax to sell hamburgers, toys and sneakers is bad enough, but using him to sell cars? Christ.
I suppose I am most bothered by the cynicism of using this character to flack for the auto industry. A character that cannot even fight back for its own image. Seuss was not above selling his work – he was a commercial artist, after all – but he kept a strong hold on it. Those cartoons that I so loved were done with his blessing. The Lorax represented, for me and for many others, the first real taste of what human beings could do to their environment. The notion that we were responsible for other living creatures as well as for ourselves. The concept that maybe, just maybe, we didn’t need all the things we were sold. That no one needs a Thneed.
At what point do we cross the line? I’m not against commercialism – it’s a part of our society and our film culture and we could not get away from it if we wanted to. There is no reason why Hollywood cannot produce a film of The Lorax without making it seem crass and cynical. After all, Wall-E is one of the least cynical pictures made in recent years (and shares many thematics with The Lorax), and was produced by Disney Pixar, one of the biggest and meanest of the multinational conglomerates. The old Disney movies like Snow White and Beauty and the Beast were not cynical, and they too sold all kinds of products. Movies like that are proof that Hollywood is capable of producing something artistic, thoughtful, and innocent without sacrificing the bottom line.
I suppose I should have a thicker skin about this. I suppose that I should expect Hollywood to behave in such a dire manner. But the cynicism gets me. Right now, I really do feel like picking myself up by the seat of my pants and flying away.
*Just a note, for those that have not experienced this. Go here to watch the original Lorax cartoon from 1971.