The late Theodor Geisel’s uneven cinematic track record gets neither better nor worse with Universal’s bigscreen adaptation of “The Lorax.” A bright, bouncy, candy-colored take on Dr. Seuss’ glum environmental fable, this latest CG-animated effort from the writers of “Horton Hears a Who!” has its share of eye-popping amusements, but its wobbly pacing and routine kidpic elements make for an experience that feels not just tiresome and rudderless but antithetical to the Seuss spirit. Still, targeted family audiences are likely to respond favorably, spelling returns in line with “Horton” as well as the filmmakers’ even bigger recent hit, “Despicable Me.”
Its release timed to coincide with what would have been Geisel’s 108th birthday, “The Lorax” also happens to be arriving smack in the middle of election season, fittingly enough for a story whose despairing message about man’s impact on the environment stirred controversy even upon the book’s 1971 publication. Certainly the film has scored no shortage of green-friendly merchandising tie-ins (look for Lorax-approved laundry detergent at a store near you), though as far as artistry goes, the result is closer to “FernGully: The Last Rainforest” on the eco-friendly toon scale than to Hayao Miyazaki or “Wall-E.”
Just as the classic half-hour TV specials of “The Cat in the Hat” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” rendered the live-action feature versions of those beloved Seuss properties wholly unnecessary, so the excellent 1972 short-toon version of “The Lorax” feels like a model of elegant form and wry wit next to this overlong effort. The story — Geisel’s personal favorite, according to his widow, Audrey — is essentially the same: In a gray, desolate wasteland, a reclusive figure known as the Once-ler (voiced here by Ed Helms) bemoans the fact that years ago, as a young and ambitious entrepreneur, he chopped down all the region’s beautiful Truffula Trees, to the chagrin of the portly, mustachioed nature guardian called the Lorax (Danny DeVito, in fine form).
In order to stretch this parable to the requisite feature length, scribes Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio have created an extended framing device set in the nearby town of Thneedville, a gleaming, postcard-perfect dystopia where nothing organic grows, everything is made of plastic, and a nasty, Napoleonic tyrant (Rob Riggle) controls the fresh-air supply.
Determined to find a real, live tree as a present for a girl(Taylor Swift) he likes, plucky young Ted (Zac Efron) sneaks out of town and pays a visit to the Once-ler, now permanently locked away in his ramshackle abode. Though hostile at first, the Once-ler proceeds to tell Ted his story in flashback: how he razed the forest in order to knit thousands of scarf-like products called Thneeds, and how the Lorax, who speaks for the trees, tried in vain to appeal to his reason and conscience.
As directed by Chris Renaud (who guided “Despicable Me” from Paul and Daurio’s script) and co-helmer Kyle Balda, the film offers a visually rich elaboration of Seuss’ hand-drawn world. Before the Once-ler’s arrival, the Lorax’s domain is an Edenic paradise, all rolling green hills and crystal-clear lakes, populated by cute critters such as the aptly named Humming-Fish and the bearlike Bar-ba-loots, which perform roughly the same sight-gag functions here that the Minions did in “Despicable Me.” These endangered environs are rendered in lush enough fashion to add some oomph to the unmistakably didactic, kid-empowering thrust of the story. (“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.”)
Yet the key to Seuss’ tales, as with all good fables, is not only their cleverness but their surpassing elegance and simplicity, qualities that this busy, over-cluttered contraption of a movie seems entirely uninterested in replicating. On the contrary, nearly every scripting decision seems intended to squeeze “The Lorax” into the uninspired-gabfest mold of so much contempo studio animation, governed by the sort of second-rate wisecrackery and literal-minded story logic that have no place in Seuss’ universe.
The book wittily limited the reader’s view of the Once-ler to his arms and hands, emphasizing his insatiable greed; the film not only presents him as a tall, strapping young man but gives him a super-annoying dysfunctional family, the better to explain his hangups and generate sympathy. Wacky supporting characters abound, from Riggle’s loud-mouthed bad guy to a wisecracking granny on skis who’s in the movie for no other reason than to give Betty White a typically adorable thesping opportunity.
The 3D element lends a particularly luscious, tactile quality to the Truffula Trees, whose orange, pink and purple blossoms resemble nothing so much as gigantic cotton-candy bursts; otherwise, the finely tuned visuals gain little from the stereoscopic treatment. Songs by composer John Powell and co-scribe Paul are genial and loopy enough to give the film something of a Seussical sensibility.