The town of Thneedville is devoid of plant life. It's been that way for quite a few years, since an entrepreneur called the Once-ler (the voice of Ed Helms) chopped down every last Truffula tree to manufacture his catch-all invention, the Thneed. You can't miss the Truffula, if you're lucky enough to see one: It looks like cotton candy on a stick.
Though the Once-ler raped the land, another enterprising businessman began selling air in the walled-in plastic city, so Thneedville could thrive again.
Ted (Zac Efron) has heard of trees, but he's never seen a real one. The girl of his dreams, Audrey (Taylor Swift), loves the idea of trees so much that she's painted the back of her house like a Truffula forest. And as it often is for a young boy's quest, the possibility of a girl's affection sets him on a course to find—somewhere, somehow—a real, live tree.
That bit about Ted and his girl is a much- different backdrop for Dr. Seuss' The Lorax than the legendary author used in the book 40 years ago, but the book isn't very cheerful and probably wouldn't be fertile ground—pardon the pun—for singalongs. Things begin to resemble the book in time, although elements from the book are always framed in a more here-and-now version of events, with Ted at the center.
Tipped off by his grandmother (Betty White) about what the residents of Thneedville call Outside of Town, Ted makes a daring escape from his plastic preserve and finds the Once-ler, now a Howard Hughes-like recluse who grudgingly tells the boy his story, and the story of the trees, and that of Thneedville. Just when he finds that missing ingredient that would make his Thneed all the rage, the Once-ler is visited by the Lorax (Danny DeVito), a curious, potato-shaped little guy with Sam Elliott's mustache. He warns the Once-ler against killing everything in the forest and says he speaks for the trees, although, certainly, they could have picked a more-serious spokesman (or spokescreature, as it were).
The book was published at the dawn of the modern environmental age, which, 40 years on, hasn't progressed much at a policy level. Of course, there is significant opposition to the very idea that the planet is in trouble. Just last week, Lou Dobbs said on his Fox Business Channel show that Hollywood is trying to "indoctrinate" children to care about the environment. Indoctrination is an ironic charge from the House of Murdoch, but there you go. One of Dobbs' guests opined that America is creating "occu-toddlers" with films like The Lorax and The Secret World of Arrietty. Well, the overall message might be there, but The Lorax mutes it with the storyline involving Ted and Audrey and all the musical numbers. Really, the sermon that is left boils down to this: "If you kill all the trees, you'll screw up things for all the animals that rely on those trees. So don't do that."
Hollywood, of course, has a long history of indoctrination. There's Birth of a Nation, Reefer Madness, a plethora of better-dead-than-Red B-movies like I Married a Communist and I Was a Communist for the FBI, the mental-hygiene classroom films of the 1950s and '60s that promoted mostly unproven science through scare tactics, and so on. So, if a tiny dude with a big mustache tells kids that their favorite furry animals need trees to live, it's hardly the first time Hollywood has resorted to brainwashing.
As Seuss films go, The Lorax, perhaps because so much of it is created for the purposes of this film, isn't as accomplished as Horton Hears a Who! The voice work is not very relevant outside of that of Ed Helms, who sings and plays the Once-ler as essentially two characters: the young, wide-eyed capitalist, and the old man who has seen the error of his ways. In contrast to most of the book, the Once-ler is never truly unrepentant, and in that sense, he isn't really even the antagonist. Instead, that's the greedier O'Hare (Rob Riggle), the shrewd tycoon who sold air to the citizens of Thneedville. Helms is terrific, but everyone else—DeVito included—is only passable.
At least Taylor Swift doesn't sing. Speaking of singing, there's a failed attempt to make The Lorax a musical extravaganza. None of the songs make much of an impression, but they do break up the indoctrina ... er ... action a bit.
Mostly, The Lorax (presented for no artistic reason in 3-D) is lukewarm. The environmental message is shifted somewhat, and it's more pleasant than truly engaging. Therefore, this is probably the first time that something based on a Dr. Seuss book can be accused of being less scandalous than the book itself.