Well with a new remake out let’s take a look back at the first attempt to adapt this Seuss work from book to screen.
Now this animated short is really a straight up adaption. The look of the backgrounds and the characters matches the look of the book. Much of the dialogue is taken word for word from the book; and Ted Geisel was a producer and writer on this project; insuring that his vision remained intact when moving the story to a new medium. As opposed to what often happens in that the original creator is credited as a creative consultant, which usually amounts to them getting asked if they have problems with the project, the answer being yes, and then the people working on the new project will do what they want anyway. That is not the case here and for the better I think, which is more than can be said about the new film, but let’s stick to this project for now.
Like the new film this too is a musical and it works pretty well as one. The songs are fun with ‘Everybody Needs a Thneed’ being my personal favourite. However, I think there’s almost a little too much music in this short. I mean right after the “Everybody Needs a Thneed” song we go straight into the ‘He’s a Jolly Good Once-ler’ song. Now that song certainly works on its own, especially when they do the melancholy requiem of it at the end when the factory has been shut down and the Once-ler’s family is leaving. But having both songs back to back like that is really weird. Even in musicals the songs are usually more spread out than that. This is even worse when the Lorax is taking the Once-ler to see the plight of the Hummingfish. We start with a short fun song just using sound effects about slop and glup and then, after one line from the Lorax, we go into the fish leaving with the hard dry land number. That tonal shift is jarring. I think it would have better to just show the sludge going into the river and then have the song about the fish leaving.
The animation is nothing spectacular here. The movement is minimal and the backgrounds are rather sparse. The voice acting is very good though and some of the scenes like the Lorax getting dumped into the thneed delivery truck are quite funny. The characters are really well done as well. I like that the Lorax is shown as very proactive and protective here. He doesn’t just try to make the Once-ler see reason he is also protecting the Bar-ba-loots from the road making machines and dusting off the smog from the Swami swans. We see him trying to speak not only to the Once-ler, but to his family when they arrive, and the people of the town itself when he is on the conveyer belt in the factory. I think my favourite line from him is the one during the montage, “I’ll yell and I’ll shout! For the fine things on Earth that are on the way out!” It was always a striking reminder to me that this is truly not about an imaginary world with a made up tree, but it is allegory to represent our world and our responsibility to the planet, to protect that which we can so easily lose.
I like that the animals are sent off one by one over the course of the film, because it shows the slow destruction of the environment from the Once-ler’s business. Not everything goes to crap the moment you start extracting a natural resource. There is even a reference to that later when the Hummingfish leave with the lyric of simple things getting out of hand. Chopping down one tree isn’t doing any harm, it’s everything that comes after that does. In this way I like the Once-ler as a character because he’s not evil. He isn’t making thneeds in his polluting factory and chopping down trees to deliberately harm the animals, he does it to further his business and doesn’t see that he is hurting them until the Lorax shows him that. He also does think over his actions, even if he does ultimately justify his actions instead of changing them; and in many respects he is right. If he wasn’t the one chopping down trees someone else would no doubt have discovered them and made some other business with them instead. We have lots of corporations in the real world that use the same resources to make almost identical products in completion with each other. He is also right when he asks the Lorax what he should do to fix the problem, simply shut down his factory and fire several hundred hard working people? That won’t fix the damage that has already been done and the Lorax acknowledges that problem and says he doesn’t have an answer for it. That is a very realistic approach to this, especially for a children’s film which normally takes a black and white stance on morals. In the real world it would be great for the environment if none of us ever drove cars again and not another drop of oil was ever drilled. It would also put hundreds of thousands of people out of work and spiral the economy down into…well more of a mess than it currently is. However, we also see that things can’t simply go on unchecked either. The rampant destruction of the Truffula forest not only destroys the environment in the end, but the Once-ler’s business too. At the end all his arguments are moot because there is nothing left for the Once-ler anyway and the Lorax leaves him to his misery.
Now with the ending I didn’t really understand why the Once-ler wouldn’t plant the last seed himself, but watching the movie again as an adult I think I get it. The Once-ler for all the destruction and pain he caused doesn’t care enough to fix what he has broken. To him the word unless is just a far away word and a far away thought. The boy he was telling the story to though sees the word as something that he ought to do and thus the Once-ler sees that he may be the key to fixing all this and gives him the seed. The Once-ler’s feelings about his actions actually work well with him being a faceless character because he is not so much a fully realized character as he a representation of greed, uncontrolled corporations, and over-consumption. He is an avatar really of the older generation speaking to the avatar of the younger generation, that is us in the audience, and saying go forth and do better than we did. Thus we end the story on a hopeful note that yes things might get better, but we have to care a lot and work for it or it won’t happen.
Despite my complainants about some of the song placements and the rough animation this is a really good film. It works as an adaption of the book and it works on its own with what it adds to lengthen the story as well as to enhance it, making it a strong stand alone project. Its got its charm and funny moments. The characters and dialogue are memorable and its message timeless. It’s a fun cautionary tale with a glimmer of hope for the future and its message, sadly, is just as relevant now as it was forty years ago.