I AM THE LORAX. I speak for the treason.
So some critics, both cinematic and political, would have us believe. ”The Lorax,” like some CGI’d Rosetta stone, has been assailed as both anti-business and a commercial sellout. One Lou Dobbs guest accused the film of “creating Occu-toddlers.” The film has been lambasted as being an empty shill for Mazda (“who will speak for the SUVs?”). And New York Times critic A.O. Scott took perhaps the sharpest ax-swing at “The Lorax’s” artistic trunk, calling it reverse-engineered junk.
Over the weekend, the public had its say: Viewers turned out in force for their own Occupy Multiplex, as “The Lorax” grossed $70.7-million in its domestic debut — the biggest opening of the year, as well as the largest take for a Seuss debut, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.
“Who would have expected a result like this?” Universal Pictures’ honcho for domestic distribution, Nikki Rocco, told the AP.
Well, some of us packed in like sardine-canned Humming-Fish at the 20-plex over the weekend quickly began to — especially not long after “Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss” trended steadily on Twitter.
So what does it mean when the masses overwhelmingly vote with their wallets — sometimes paying premium prices for the luxury of donning recyclable 3D plastic glasses? Are we all just being snookered like schnooks — as mindless as “The Lorax’s” walled-in townfolk shelling out our limited funds for a breath, we hope, of creative fresh air?
The many reasons for the turnout, of course, include the several generations of bred-young Seuss fans; the millions poured into getting the word (and images) out for months; and the post-Oscars lull of the mall offerings, or the March of the Doldrums. But beyond all that, Comic Riffs would add this to the chorus:
Artistically, economically and sociopolitically, we grown-ups grow so accustomed to making the Great Compromise — which is often really just the daily accumulation of small reckonings. And most everything about and around ”The Lorax” feels like trade-offs and trade-ins.
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The National Education Association partnered with Universal Pictures for its Read Across America events Friday (slogan: “NEA’s Read Across America Tour — Driven by Mazda.”). Some critics upbraided the NEA for getting into bed with Mazda, which — with its “Truffula-approved” SUVs — pledged $1-million to the country’s public-school libraries. The NEA responded to those critics by essentially saying: We speak for the libraries — in this time of high neediness, do you really think we’re going to turn down a million bucks? Why, we’d be book-schnooks!
Yes, “The Lorax” is a cautionary tale about the stewardship of the environment. So Mazda claims its SUVs are better for the environment that the other guys’ SUVs — and then its million bucks can perhaps help thousands of books about what’s-better-for-the-environment end up at schools.
Trade-offs. Trade-ins. And the ongoing Compromise as we “think of the children.”
Then there are the critics who, offended by what they see on screen, say Theodor Geisel — aka “Dr. Seuss” — would never have allowed such slapped-together digital claptrap to be created, let alone disseminated. But as has been reported, Ted empowered his widow, Audrey Geisel, to navigate his Seuss estate after his 1991 death. This has led to such properties as two live-action feature films (for the Grinch and Cat in the Hat stories) and the musical “Seussical.” And as for “The Lorax” — The Film, it has added a created-from-whole-thneed-cloth story (not in the book) about a young “Ted” and “Audrey.” (Who knows whether this naming and narrative were done to appease the widow Geisel — or whether they were cooked up by Audrey herself?)
Thing is, “The Lorax” hasn’t completely abandoned the relatively thin 1971 book — Dr. Seuss’ message is still there, sprouting a little satire at the outset and pealing especially strong toward film’s end (this isn’t a Hollywood bastardization on the level, say, of “fixing” the ending of “The Scarlet Letter” and its won’t-be-denied Demi Moore.) At the end, at least, “Lorax” is true to its True-ness.
And Thing-2 is, “Lorax” the film — while sometimes visually delicious — lacks the craft and humanity of Pixar, or the yuks-per-minute of DreamWorks. Although the land of the Truffula trees is a dazzling candy palette of bright tints, the script is strictly paint-by-numbers. Yet it seems perfectly palatable (though never profound) for the under-10 set that is the heart of its home demographic — those wee ones unfettered by the ambient pitch of election-year political “discourse.”
“The Lorax” is a candidate that may require our own Compromise — but the kid viewers aren’t playing in that polarizing sandbox.
Then there are the snipers who would snip that Mr. Geisel must be rolling over in his final resting place — that were he alive, he would be mortified and appalled by such a market-friendly, ad-happy commercial film. Yet these critics conveniently forget that Geisel helped make his early name in advertising. Not only did he work on Madison Avenue for many years, lending his furry creatures to product shilling, but one of his bigger campaigns was for Flit pesticide — meaning that one of his bigger clients was Standard Oil.
Tough to be an environmental purist, perhaps, when you lend your creative talents to the business of pipelines.
IN MY BOYHOOD — at the same age as “The Lorax’s” 12-year-old Ted — Comic Riffs first saw the same La Jolla trees that are said to have inspired Geisel to invent the Truffulas. His “Lorax,” according to lore, was a reaction to this coast community’s new commercial growth. I had read “The Lorax,” and appreciated the real Ted’s message of balance.
And now, this past weekend, I sit in “The Lorax” next to a 12-year-old relative (who, by the way, expected the film to contain more sappy dreck than it did). Next to us is a couple that, throughout the film, keep lecturing their 18-month-old about environmental hazards and care — literally talking over his head. Do your part — they say — to contribute and be concerned and not be lazy.
As they leave afteward, however, stacked behind them on the floor are several piles of teetering trash. This couple seem to be the only ones in the entire theater not carrying their nacho trays and popcorn tubs to the stacked-high receptables. Perhaps they’re “creating jobs” for the teen workers. Perhaps they’re lazy. Or maybe having paid their 30-plus bucks for “The Lorax,” they now speak for the parents who are well-meaning but flawed and and rationalizing and forgetful as they look for ways — amid their modern weariness — to entertain the SUV-toted children.
They make trade-offs. Trade-ins. And the consistent Compromise.