The Lorax

It was only after seeing the new animated version of “The Lorax,” and being disappointed by it, that I went back and re-read the Dr. Seuss book it’s based on. I think my disappointment would have been greater if the book had been fresh in my mind when I saw the film. Having only dim memories of it prevented me from realizing, in the moment, just how untrue to its spirit the movie really is.

The good doctor’s 1971 original, while peppered with Seussian language and told in rhyme, is bleak. The world is gray and deforested, choking to death on smog, all the animals gone. The brief story doesn’t end with someone fixing things and everyone living happily ever after: it ends with the hope that renewed efforts will one day make things right again. There’s no assurance it will actually happen. Simple and unadorned, the story has a haunting, somber effect.

Compare that to the movie — a merry, song-filled, candy-colored thing that’s as hollow as a cheap chocolate bunny. Writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (who did a much better job with “Horton Hears a Who”) got rid of 99 percent of the rhyming and every Seussian word other than “Lorax,” “Once-ler,” “Truffula,” and “Thneed,” yet somehow rendered the story less serious, not more. What was once a straightforward and uncluttered narrative is now padded with backstory, subplots, and diversions, all necessitated by the desire to stretch an 1800-word story into a feature-length movie. The book left no doubt that Dr. Seuss took the message seriously. The film leaves no doubt that the principal motivating factor was a desire to convert Seuss’ books into money, and that “The Lorax” just happened to be next on the list.

We open in Thneedville, a synthetic metropolis where only the oldest citizens can recall a time when trees existed. The absence of plant life seems to have had no ill effect on the city; indeed, everyone is healthy and happy. A boy named Ted (voice of Zac Efron), desiring to woo the lovely Audrey (Taylor Swift), who has an affinity for extinct flora, sets out to learn what happened to the trees — and, if possible, to get one. So that Audrey will like him. Yes, the chain of events that brings plant life back to the world is set in motion not because the world needs plants, but because a boy wants to impress a girl. Better to do the right thing for the wrong reason than not to do it at all, I guess.

Ted’s grandma (Betty White, obviously) tells him to venture outside the city to the wastelands and ask the Once-ler where the trees went. The Once-ler (Ed Helms), a shack-dwelling hermit, reveals all in the form of flashbacks that basically follow the tale you’re familiar with. He set out as a young man to make his fortune, chopped down trees to make a product called Thneeds, sold a zillion of them, and in the process used up every last tree in the country, the fool. He did all of this despite warnings from the Lorax (Danny DeVito), a potato-shaped sprite who speaks for the trees and other voiceless creatures.

In filling out the details of the story, the writers and director Chris Renaud (“Despicable Me”) inject a lot of forced whimsy. When the Lorax and some animals sneak into the Once-ler’s house late at night, we hear the “Mission: Impossible” music. There’s some glib satire about a greedy industrialist (Rob Riggle) selling air to the citizens of Thneedville. Meanwhile, the film eliminates most of the whimsy that was already there, discarding fanciful animal names like Bar-ba-loots and Swomee-Swans and calling them plain old bears and birds.

All of that being said: yeah, the movie is cute. It has a few laughs and is not generally annoying. It’s only disappointing in comparison to its source material, and in comparison to what it could have been; by itself, it’s worthy of a shrug and a pat on the head, no more, no less.

C+ (1 hr., 26 min.; PG, mild rude humor.)