Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax

 Rated PG. Our ratings: V -2; L -1; S/N -3 . Running time: 1 hour

God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image,
     make them     reflecting our nature
So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea,
   the birds in the air, the cattle, And, yes, Earth itself,
   and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.”
God created human beings;
   he created them godlike, Reflecting God’s nature.
   He created them male and female.
God blessed them:
   “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!
Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air,
    for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.”
                           Genesis 1:26-28, The Message

“Speak up for the people who have no voice,
     for the rights of all the down-and-outers.
Speak out for justice!
    Stand up for the poor and destitute!”
  Proverbs 31:8-9

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.”   
Dr. Seuss , The Lorax

This fourth feature adaptation of a Dr. Seuss book drew in more box office receipts than all others on the  weekend that it opened. It is easy to see why with its animation, whimsical dialogue, and songs based on  the original text, plus an an environmental message aimed at children. The film understandably has been attacked by the usual conservative crowd opposed to environmentalism (too much anti-business sentiment here), but even many liberal critics have scorned it, some of the reasons for which we will examine later.

 The film follows the book in that the story of how Thneed-Ville, a plasticized city where no living tree or blade of grass grows, came into being, as told by an elderly man named Once-ler. To lengthen the original the filmmakers have added the story of 12-year old Ted (voice of Zac Efron) who fancies the slightly older teenaged Audrey (Taylor Swift). When he hears her declare that she would marry the one who brought her a live Truffula tree, he decides to set forth on his monobike to find one. This means going outside the huge city walls that separete the brightly colored city streets and homes from the desolate countryside, even though it is against the law to do so.

Ted at last discovers the tall home of the hermit Once-ler (Ed Helms), who, despite wanting to be left alone, at last gives in to Ted’s persistence and begins to tell him his story. He breaks off, telling his visitor to come back again to hear more. Meanwhile the spy cameras hidden all around the city have revealed Ted’s venturing forth beyond  Thneed-Ville, so when Mr. O’Hare (Rob Riggle), the tyrannical mayor, and also head of  the factory that sells bottled air to the citizens, calls the boy to his office, he orders him not to leave the city again.

However, encouraged by his feisty grandmother (Betty White), who remembers a time when trees grew everywhere, Ted does visit Once-ler again, learning that the storyteller himself was responsible for the city’s plight. Years before, he  had set forth on his mule-drawn cart to make his fortune in the world and found the land where Truffula trees grew in abundance. Growing atop tall palm tree-like trunks was an orange, yellow or pink tuft made up of silky fibres. When Ted chopped down the first tree, the air and earth shook, and a shaft of light descended from the sky. We expect this to herald a mighty being, but instead it is a creature as small as Yoda—the Lorax (Danny DiVito) who appears, proclaiming himself the protector of the land.

At his entreaty Ted at first agrees not to chop down any more trees. However, he has made something that he dubs a thneed. At first he had not been able to sell it, but upon persisting, he had persauded  a woman to see its attractiveness as a hat. Others followed, it becoming a garment and a host of other usefu things.  When the would-be customers  rush to him, thrusting their money upon him, he gives in. The old way of harvesting the Truffula is too slow to keep up with the tremandous demand for his thneeds. It is quicker to chop them down. And thus begins the process that leads to their extinction, the city and countryside losing all its vegetation and becoming an artificial, plastic place, Once-ler , going broke, retired to live the life of a hermit, and a former worker name O' Hare rose to power, growing richer and richer. The film ends with Ted, Audry, and Grandmother, given by Once-ler the last Truffula seed, in revolt against O’ Hare and his brawny goons.

 Most of Theodore Seuss Geisel’s books are so short that the 22 minute length of a TV half hour show is the appropriate medium for his works. Such was the case with the wonderful 1966 adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, a classic animated fable that always remains fresh, no matter how many times you return to it. Such was not the case with Ron Howard’s attempt in 2000 to transfer the short story to a feature length film, the result being a bloated mess that was a mockery of the very message of simplicity and non-commercialization of Christmas intended by its author. I was afraid that this might be the case with this one, but found that this time the addition of Ted and Audrey’s story did not spoil the original. This section’s many chase scenes will delight younger viewers, but do not, I believe, over-ride the message of what is a wonderful cautionary tale.

One reason who some have turned against the film is due to the studios’ (Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures) commercializing of the film, and thus diluting its anti-corporate and environmentalist message (one company produces disposable diapers! See for more on this leasing of movie-tie-in rights). However, few viewers will be aware of this, nor should the film be scorned because its sponsors have misused it.

 A more apt criticism is the use of 3-D, and especially Imax 3-D: the simple story does not require this, and perhaps is almost overpowered by this gimickry merely because the studios wanted to be able to charge the premium price for tickets. My advice is to see it in in its flat version. I did enjoy it on Imax 3-D, but this is entirely unnecessary to enjoy the film—and removes any possibility of the message being lost, a message that is cleverly woven into both narrative and song, the climax swelling with the anthem-like “Let It Grow.” I should also add that there is more than just an environmental message in the film. Children should be able to pick this up, as several times throughout the film we see the inscription on one of the stones marking the spot where the Lorax exited the earth, “Unless.”

This makes an excellent complement to the phrase in the above Genesis passage “ be responsible,” Eugene  H. Peterson’s better translation of the Hebrew of the Creation Story text than the RSV’s “dominion.” Some have said to watch the far better Wall-E rather than go see this one, but I believe there is room for both.

For Reflection/DiscussionNote: The following questions obviously are for adults or youth, this being a “children’s film” that can provide older viewers plenty of themes to ponder and discuss. Those working with children--parents, grandparents, teachers and care givers, Christian educators, and pastors (those giving “children’s sermons,” too often overly didactic and patronizing)--should ignore the first question and rephrase the others. And above all, use a Socratic rather than a pedantic method, thus assisting the children to discover for themselves meaning as they are led to think about a particular scene, exchange of dialogue, or song. Time after time I have been delighted at the insights children come up, sometimes new insights that I had failed to see.

1. What do you think of the addition to Dr. Seuss’ book? Do you think it makes the story more understandable, or, for children, more exciting? And is this a good thing?
2. What is Ted like when we first meet him? What sets him off on his quest? What quality sees him through the many obstacles he encounters: in the town and at the hermit’s unwelcoming abode? How does Ted change as the movie unfolds? In other words, what was his motive for setting out on his quest, and what was it when he was given the seed?
3. What was Once-ler like when he first met the Lorax? How does the movie make the chopping down of the Truffala tree an act of sacrilege, and the appearance of the Lorax as a religious experience?
4. What did you think of the Lorax when he first appeared? Maybe like Luke Skywalker did when he first met Yoda? How does this guardian of the land defend it? Not with might or power, does he? To what in Ted does he appeal ? Compare this to the way in which Gandhi and his satyagraha followers resisted their enemy as they sought the independance of India.
5. When the Lorax had rocks placed around the tree stump, what did the result look like--a memorial? How did the music contribute to the effect? How did this seem like a religious or spiritual act?
6. How does this method of “guarding” the land relate to the word we see several times in the film, “Unless”? Instead of an outer coercive force, how does it become an inner one? How is this far more powerful than an outer one, such as laws and penalties, fences and guards?
7. What connection do you see between this film, especially its word “Unless,” and the Genesis Creation Story? What word do you find in most translations for humankind’s care for, or as in The Message, “responsible for,” the earth and its creatures? How did the traditional translation of the Hebrew word lead to our misuse of the earth and its resources? How do we see this misuse in Dr. Seuss’ book and film?
8. What did you make of the Lorax’s words to Once-ler, “Which way do trees fall?” The reply, “Down?”  The Lorax, “The way it leans. Be careful which way you lean.” How was this both a warning and a prophecy? Which “way” was Once-ler leaning? Toward greed, prophet, exploitation? Which way does his, and ours, culture tend to point us? Think back over your own life and examine which way you have been “leaning.” How has this leaning changed at times, and if it did, what were the influences?
9. Listen carefully to the words of the songs, and note how Ted begins to justify his denuding of the area. How do we justify this today—such as in leveling mountains to get at coal, drilling in wildlife preserves, cutting down the forests in Brazil, or —? Name some other current practices that threaten the environment. For a video of the song “Let It Grow” go to:
10. What do you think of O’Hare’s selling bottled air? Far fetched? What do you think of the statement by one of his sycophants, “If you put it in a plastic bottle, people will buy it.” Thirty years ago would you have thought people would by bottled water in such quantity?
11. Compare Thneed-Ville to other dystopias in films: Blade Runner; Children of Men; Logan’s Run; 1984; Pleasantville; WALL-E. Though the details are different, what do they have in common? Which ones end on a hopeful note?
12. Some have criticized the original book as being too simplistic and too anti-corporate by not showing that there can be other solutions than totally refusing to use the resources of the earth. What do you think? How have lumber companies dealt with forests in the past, and how are some of them treating forests under their control now? Do you think there can be a win/win for both sides now? Compare this film with the situation in which an environmentalist and an oil company CEO comfront one another in Big Miracle.

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