Sunday, April 22, 2012

Let’s Review a Movie: The Lorax (2012)

Well this has been a rather polarizing film and honestly I find myself in a most hated position, right smack in the middle of opinions.

I can’t lob nothing but hate at the film like I thought I would when I first saw the initial trailers and advertisements for it.  But I can’t say that it blew all my expectations away and heap nothing but praise on it like I did with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, because this film does have some very deep flaws.

Unlike the 1972 film this one doesn’t feel like an adaption so much as the original story is a jumping off point for other stuff.  Which means they really should have just called this something else and said it was inspired by Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.  It’s not just the plot it’s the whole look of the film too.  I mean when the film ended and the credits moved into the proper Seussain look I literal thought "wow this is Dr. Seuss". And then I realized I hadn’t thought that for the entire film.  This film is very nice to look at and the animation is vastly improved from the 1972 short, but it doesn’t look like a work of Dr. Seuss in the least.  I know they tried to achieve that quirky whimsical look with the designs of the buildings and some of the cars, but it doesn’t work for me.  One problem is that nothing has any hard dark outlines like the book illustrations have.  Everything from the backgrounds to the characters is soft.  Another problem is that you have some attempt at whimsical fantasy right smack up against modern looking stuff like giant trucks, blimps, and security cameras and it’s jarring.

Well once again we have an adaptation as a musical.  So how are the songs?  Well at first I didn’t like the songs at all, but they have grown on me, including that bubble-gum pop ballad during the credits.  I will admit they are a guilty pleasure.  Some of them don’t work like ‘This is the Place’ which I hate and ‘Everybody Needs a Thneed’ that was my favourite in the other movie makes me want to shatter my eardrums here.  Some of the lyrics in the other songs that I do like are pretty bad too.  Sorry Betty White you are one cool old lady, but you can’t sing.

Moving on to the characters we have the nameless boy in the original story now named Ted who has a disco loving mom and the world’s coolest grandmother.  He also has a crush on the girl next door and that’s his whole motivation for going outside Thneedville in search of a tree.  What else can I really say about him?  Oh yeah, he drives a cool bike.  Other than that there isn’t really anything to him.  He’s not a bad character he’s just uninteresting to me.  Not to worry though, because I have other things to complain about besides a bland character.  

First off, oh boy does O’Hare suck as a bad guy.  He really doesn’t serve any purpose outside of giving Ted an obstacle to getting to the Once-ler and planting the seed, and not a very good one at that.  After his initial confrontation with Ted he pretty much does nothing until he sees the seed that Ted brings back.   Why bother having him threatening Ted if he isn’t really going to do anything until the last act?  I mean if he had been tougher on Ted and Ted had to really struggle to get to the Once-ler that final time we could have had proper character development and maybe the Once-ler could even see some of Ted’s struggle and know that he really is serious about the trees and thus that he is the right one to give the seed to.  Also O’Hare is shown as the CEO of a company that sells fresh air to the town, why does he have cameras everywhere like something out of George Orwell’s 1984?  He wasn’t shown as being part of any government, and say what you will about governments living out of the back pockets of companies they are in fact separate institutions, so why the heck does O’Hare have the kind of control that he does?  Furthermore having him here doesn’t just muck things up from a logical perspective it mucks it up from a theme perspective too.  I said in my review of the first film that I liked the Once-ler there because he wasn’t evil.  He didn’t go into the thneed business to hurt the animals and destroy the forest, those were unintended consequences of his actions, but O’Hare knows his business causes pollution and purposely continues doing it to drive up profits.  So much for moral ambiguity, now we’re back to white and black absolutes.  This character really does not need to be here and the original message of being cautious with the environment was far stronger without a standard bad guy villain.

Speaking of unnecessary characters whose idea was it to have the character of Audrey in here?  I will say that going into this film I didn’t think this character was going to work because Taylor Swift was voicing her.  I’m not a big fan of her music and I honestly thought she wouldn’t do well with voice acting.  However, she doesn’t do bad at all and I quite enjoyed her performance, but that doesn’t change the fact that the character should have been cut from the film.  She doesn’t do anything except provide Ted with a motivation to go looking for trees.  She doesn’t help during the end chase scene except for her line about photosynthesis.  Which is stupid for reasons I’ll get into later, and the romance isn’t really developed at all so her character is pointless on that level too.  Also since much of the fandom, including myself, have jumped on board the Once-ler/Grandma Norma ship among others the romance angle in this film has clearly failed at all levels.   Like O’Hare I think the story would have been better without this character.

I think Ted really should have been motivated to go looking for the trees on his own.  We even have a thread for that in that his mom likes the new Oak-o-matic tree.  We could have had that tree being ‘planted’ as the opening for the movie and Ted wondering how it’s any different from the one they had before.  Then maybe Grandma Norma tells him about a special kind of tree, the Truffula tree, that used to grow all around Thneedville.  In the film they keep switching between all the trees are gone and all the Truffula trees are gone and they should have just stuck with Truffula trees, because if those were the only kind of trees in the world then the Once-ler should have had no idea what trees were when he was younger, before coming to the forest, and the design of the fake trees in Thneedville should look like Truffula trees if that’s all anyone has to gone on for what trees look like.  Anyway if Norma explained all about the trees that used to be there and about how to talk to the man who knew about what happened to the trees, and then Ted wanted to find out why they were all gone it would have made him far more interesting and sympathetic than doing it because he wants to get with a girl.  Yes I know his motivations change during the course of the film, but I think it comes too little too late.  The ending is where the movie completely falls apart for me anyway and that obviously doesn’t help, but I’ll get to that in a minute.  The point is that having Ted want to know about the trees and want to save them all on his own would have strengthened the film thematically; where you would have a parallel between him and the Once-ler.   Where the Once-ler was one man who brought about destruction and death, Ted is the one boy who can bring about change and rebirth.

Now with the only one man idea I have arrived at the big issue with the new film: Mr. Once-ler.  Let’s get this out of the way right up front, yes I do think he is attractive.  He isn’t the first animated character I find appealing physically and I know he won’t be the last.  Also I don’t think expanding him as a character was a bad move initially.  Since this is a feature length movie and the book is a short story obviously they did have to expand things to fill up the time they now have, and fleshing out characters is often the best way to do that and can be quite successful.  In this film though, and I know it sounds like a back handed compliment, I think they did their job too well.  With the new backstory we see that Once-ler wants to make something useful.  He wants to be successful and make his family proud.  It's not just about money.  He is also flawed in that he doesn’t want to see the harm that his actions are causing.  It’s really easy to blind yourself to the idea that what you are doing is harmful to someone else.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions as they say.  The filmmakers said they wanted to make the character human so the audience would connect with him rather than having him be a creature, an other, and thus the problem can be put on someone else rather than us.  And I really do think they were successful with that.  In the 1972 film because the Once-ler is shown to be all green he does come off as something other than human to me.  So making him human here and showing his plight does make him much better to connect with.  Unfortunately they get that all set-up great and then bungle his character arc in the last act and his early stuff with the Lorax certainly doesn’t help matters.    

Now the whole expansion of Once-ler and the Lorax interactions before he starts biggering his company gives us two problems.  One is that with this part expanded and the actual meat of the book condensed into a musical number it makes the Lorax come off as an ineffective whiner.  When the Lorax shows up initially he tells the Once-ler to leave the forest or else and follows through on his threat by trying to send him away down the river.  Then when we get to the ‘How Bad Can I Be?’ montage we just see the Lorax  pleading with Once-ler and then just sitting in his office looking out the window, it’s a real let down.  I mean before he was willing to be proactive enough to try and send Once-ler away when all he did was cut down one tree, but now that he is chopping down trees in droves, polluting the air and water, he isn’t doing anything?  You know what I’m totally on the Once-ler’s side here.  If all this is so horrible why doesn’t the Lorax use his so called powers to do something?  Because it doesn’t work that way is the answer.  Well then how does it work?  You know what filmmakers if you had just shown the Lorax popping out of the tree trunk, instead of having all the thunder and lightning for the sake of special effects, you wouldn’t have this dangling plot thread that will never be resolved.

The second problem is that in the first short and the book the Lorax and the Once-ler were not friends, here they are and that changes everything.  Once-ler promised his friends that he wouldn’t cut down any more trees.  The ones who lived with him, who he liked and who liked him in return; and he abandons all that for money, power, and the perceived acceptance from his family.  When the Lorax and the animals leave they aren’t leaving some guy they’ve never really interacted with they are leaving a former friend and he is devastated by it.  We really needed to see more pay-off from that and it never materializes.  In the 1972 short the Once-ler was pretty much the faceless avatar not a fully developed character in his own right.  The opposite is true here.  Here the Once-ler is a fully realized character.  Who makes friends and breaks promises and needs to grow from his mistakes.  When the animals leave he finally understands the damage he has caused and the friends he has betrayed.  He has fallen from great heights, lost all that he had.  The stage is now set for Once-ler to work towards redemption…and instead we cut back to Ted and spend the rest of the film with a villain that belongs on Captain Planet and the characters we spent barely any time with, and thus don’t care about, with almost nothing at stake.  This film is an hour and twenty minutes long and the third act actually feels really rushed and the resolution is lacking any real punch.             

After the really pointless chase scene and knocking down the wall so people can see what is really going on in the outside world Ted tells the people of Thneedville that things aren’t perfect in their town and they are only going to get worse.  Only that’s not true.  Thneedville itself hasn’t gotten worse just because Ted discovered the wasteland outside of it.  If the tree doesn’t get planted and grow nothing changes.  There will still be air for the people it just won’t be free.  The environment outside the town won’t improve, but that doesn’t really affect the environment inside the town, even though it should because if Ted can ride down the wall out of town then it’s not fully enclosed but whatever.  Now that could have tied together with O’Hare increasing pollution to further his company, but it wasn’t.  The romance between Ted and Audrey doesn’t go anywhere and Ted has already had all the character growth he is going to get.  Why should we care about any of this?  Well, in fact there is something at stake here, but it is back in the wasteland, it’s the Once-ler.  We want to see him come out of the hole of despair he put himself in, that’s why I find that part with him breaking down the boards on his window and looking out at the town with such hope and gratitude incredibly moving.  It was his story that mattered and his redemption that was the key in all of this, that’s why he gets the happy ending of seeing the Lorax return rather than just ending the film with Ted planting the tree.  The more I think about it though the more depressing that ending actually is.  In the 1972 film the time that has passed between the Once-ler closing down his factory and talking to the boy is unspecified.  It was just a long time back that he came to the forest and started his business.  His voice doesn’t change over time and because he’s an all green creature you can argue that he could live much longer than humans do.   Not so for the new Once-ler.  Again because they put so much effort into making him human we know that he ages at the same rate we do.  We know that he is older than he was in the flashbacks because his voice does change and so does his appearance when we see him fully at the end.  And because Grandma Norma is his contemporary, she remembers when there were trees, we know approximately how much time has passed: about forty years.  Four decades he spent with the guilt of betraying his friends, being abandoned by them and his family, in complete isolation in a polluted wasteland and he gets his redemption as an old man with maybe a decade of life left if he’s lucky.  This is horrible!

Honestly because the Once-ler is the flawed human character going through an arc here they really needed to have him trying to fix stuff on his own right after the animals leave.  You could even have him fail and have Ted connect in by having to save the trees because no one believes in the Once-ler after his factory has failed and put a lot of the town out of work.  It was those people in the town who needed to learn something not the people in present day Thneedville. They should be the ones to banish their greed because the Once-ler's business would never have been successful if they hadn’t demanded his product.  As it is the townspeople are still a bunch of fad hopping jerks, because most of them don’t know the first thing about how the tree is going to fix anything or how greed destroyed things in the first place they just say let it grow because everyone else does.  Also how the heck does no one in Thneedville know about photosynthesis?  I mean Grandma Norma’s generation was alive when the Truffula forest was still standing is she the only one left alive now?  If that’s the case how did Audrey find out about trees?  Also if O’Hare knows that trees make air, and judging by how he looks in the flashback his part of Ted’s mom’s generation how do none of them know about trees and how they work?  Honestly they should have just had the Truffula trees be a special species that went extinct it would have filled the film with so much less stupidity and contrivance.

To sum it all up and boil it all down the film is just okay.  As an adaptation I think it utterly fails, but as a stand alone project it’s just all right.  Some of the songs are good and others are not.  The film visually is wonderful to look at, but it doesn’t look like Dr. Seuss at all.  Many of the characters are unnecessary and underdeveloped, even though the voice acting is good.   In the Once-ler’s case he’s too well developed and his arc is dropped in the third act, and the story comes off as weak and disjointed because of that.  The environmental message gets lost further under a sea of stupid corporate tie ins and a pointless black-hat villain, and I keep thinking about all the cool things that could have been done here rather than liking the film purely on its own.

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