Tuesday 16 January 2018

Churning the fables

Paul Whitington

The lorax

(G, general release, 86 minutes)

Director: Chris Renaud, Kyle Balda Stars: Danny DeVito, Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, Betty White, Ed Helms

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Hollywood has always regarded the work of Theodor Seuss Geisel with deep suspicion.

His children's books are so culturally omnipresent, especially in America, that they seem ripe for movie exploitation; but there are darknesses and sharp edges and preachy political undercurrents in Dr Seuss's work that sit uneasily with the cookie-cutter conveyor belts of modern studio filmmaking.

Recent movies based on his work, such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, have diluted and sanitised Seuss's stories to the extent that they're barely recognisable, and only the 2008 animation Horton Hears a Who! has come close to catching the writer's delightfully ditzy and subversive tone.

This glossy Universal animation is based on one of his later books, The Lorax, a 1972 fable that reflected the writer's growing preoccupations with the environment and excessive consumerism. Those messages survive -- but only just.

Zac Efron provides the voice of Ted Wiggins, a 12-year-old boy living in a swish and ultra-modern walled city called Thneed-Ville. There are no plants or vegetative life of any kind in Thneed-Ville -- everything, even the food and the lawns, is synthetic, and the community's economy is ruthlessly controlled by voracious entrepreneur Aloysius O'Hare, who even flogs bottled air to the gullible citizenry.

Ted, meanwhile, has the hots for Audrey (Taylor Swift), a willowy redhead and the girl of his dreams. Audrey is an artistic type, and when she confides in Ted that she'd love to see a real tree, he sets out like a latter-day knight errant to find her one.

Venturing beyond the city's walls, he crosses a devastated wasteland and finds the home of the Once-ler, a wizened old man who tells him what happened to all the trees.

When he was young, the Once-ler arrived in a virgin forest and hit on the idea of a revolutionary and versatile new product called the 'thneed'. A bright, woolly thing that seems to serve a variety of functions while actually performing none, the thneed is made from the tufts of Truffula Trees, but when the Once-ler starts chopping them down he earns the displeasure of the Lorax (Danny DeVito).

When the little orange creature emerges from nowhere with a flash and mutters the immortal line "I am the Lorax -- I speak for the trees," it's one of the only times during this film that you feel remotely close to the spirit of Seuss.

The animation is nice enough, and the fish, bears and hairy trees that inhabit the The Lorax's domain are faithful enough to Seuss's trippy drawings. But around the core of his original tale has been grafted a breathy modern love story, complete with song and dance numbers and annoying comic staples such as a naggy mother and a scheming granny.

This addended world is blandly but inoffensively animated, and some of the action sequences are very well done, particularly the moments where Ted escapes from the city on a moped.

But the trashy valley talk in which Ted and his girl converse is sharply at odds with the inspired and sarcastic rhymes of Seuss.

The Lorax seems vaguely apologetic about its story's eccentric, cranky origins and Seuss's high-flown language, and at one point the film's script even tries to make fun of it. The result is watchable but unremarkable, and overall rather craven.

Incredibly, meanwhile, Right-wing commentators in the US have attacked this bland production for trying to indoctrinate children. Teaching kids to avoid greed and respect their environment -- how unforgivable.

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