“The Lorax,” the latest example of a classic Dr. Seuss story run through the Hollywood machine, is in some ways a complete mess of a movie that buries glimmers of brightness and appealing strangeness beneath the usual heap of animated-movie conventions.
Somehow, though, the result doesn’t feel like it shamed its source material, holding onto a heartfelt and, at times, moving environmental message even in the middle of all the shouting.
The storyline is, of course, vastly more padded out than the original, which is a natural side effect of taking a half hour’s worth of story and expanding it into an hour-and-a-half long movie.
This particular incarnation solves that problems by having to separate storylines, one inside the other – a flashback to the Lorax and an inventor who doesn’t listen, and the young man living in a treeless world who wants to find one to impress a girl.
The Lorax section is actually the weaker of the two stories, though Danny DeVito gives a tender, wise performance as the Lorax that was better than I would have given him credit for. The young man he’s trying to teach, the Once-ler, is mostly a plot vehicle (Ed Helms does what he can, but sometimes the script buries people).
Zac Efron and Taylor Swift, the young man living in the treeless world and the girl he admires, mostly project a youthful enthusiasm that may actually inspire the kids in the audience to do a little tree-saving of their own. They’re both far more focused and take-charge than the Once-ler, which also makes their storyline seem much less divided and scattered.
Betty White does the eccentric grandma routine she’s famous for, but there’s always some pleasure in watching even the most clichéd act performed by a master.
There’s also pleasure in finding something interesting where you least expected it. Though the sequence where the Once-ler transforms into a temporary villain might be a little scary for younger kids – it’s not as bad as the sludge song in “Ferngully,” but it’s heading in that direction – there’s also flickers of a serious, sharp movie around the edges of “The Lorax.”
The opening song, an insanely cheerful number about living in the perfect town where everything’s plastic, slowly starts sliding in undercurrents that lets you know that something is really wrong.
Later, the scene where Zac Efron’s character first drives out of his bright town and into the dead world outside the heavily-guarded walls has a punch.
In the end, the movie’s heart is in the right, tree-friendly place, and might encourage kids to pick up the original book. After all, we need as many people to speak for the trees as we can get.