Thursday 2 August 2012

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax Review - It's Funny, It's Lyrical and the Animation's First-Rate; But the Lack of Originality Means it May Start to Grate

If you're reading this in America, this review will seem very belated, given that The Lorax is released on DVD and Blu-Ray over there on the 7th, but the third feature film from Illumination Entertainment - who arrived on the animation scene with Despicable Me back in 2010 - only arrived here in the UK on the 27th July; over 4 months after it was first released in America! So, I went to see the adaptation of the classic Dr. Seuss book on Wednesday, and left with a mixed impression.

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax is by no means a bad film; it's a very faithful adaptation of the Seuss book, with a strong moral message, cute characters and gorgeous animation. However, the characters that aren't cute are underdeveloped and annoying, the pacing is a bit off and the comedy is a trifle inconsistent. The biggest problem with The Lorax though, is that it's unoriginal. You will enjoy it, but you'll also leave with the inescapable feeling that it could've been so much more.

Having not seen (and based on the reviews, having no desire to see) Illumination's second film, the live-action/CGI hybrid, Hop, The Lorax, for me, was the follow up to 2010's wonderful Despicable Me, as well as acting as the spiritual successor to Blue Sky Studios' Horton Hears a Who!, another computer-animated adaptation of a beloved Dr. Seuss book. When Blue Sky head-honcho Chris Meledandri left the Fox-owned subsidiary to set up Illumination Entertainment for Universal in 2008, he essentially took with him the animated film rights to Seuss's work. Meledandri had established a good working relationship with the widow of Dr. Seuss, real named Theodor Geisel, whilst working on Horton, and, pleased with the adaptation, she later granted him the rights to adapt The Lorax, this time for Illumination Entertainment.

Personally, I preferred Horton, it felt more original and had more heart, but The Lorax can't be faulted on its faithfulness to Dr. Seuss's original story and, perhaps more importantly, to its message. The team at Illumination add when needed, to accommodate for turning a relatively short book into a 90-minute feature, but the Seussian heart is there, the essence is there, and they try not to tamper as much as possible. This team consists of, amongst so many other talented artists and film-makers, director Chris Renaud, (Despicable Me) - who lent his voice to some of the Minions in Despicable Me, and noticeably voices some of the forest animals here - co-director Kyle Balda and producers Chris Meledandri and Janet Healy; from a script by Ken Duario and Cinco Paul. The music in the film (a plus overall) was composed by John Powell (who also scored Horton Hears a Who!).

As I've said, The Lorax is by no stretch a bad film - it's very fun, light-hearted and enjoyable - it just comes across as a bit of a lazy one, in its unoriginality - several points in the film bring to mind Blue Sky's Robots, and the general set-up feels too akin to previous Seuss adaptations (particularly Horton) to the point where you feel you've seen it all before. Regardless, Seuss's widow was pleased with this adaptation of The Lorax, giving the green-light for Illumination to adapt The Cat in the Hat (almost a decade after Universal's horrific live-action attempt to adapt it). I've no doubt that that, too, will be enjoyable and have the quirky Seuss humour, but I just hope Illumination try to infuse more originality into that; hopefully it can be all that The Lorax had the potential to be.

The plot of The Lorax follows a young boy named Ted (Zac Efron) trying to impress a beautiful older girl, Audrey (Taylor Swift) - as an aside, it really is testament to the respect for Seuss and the source material that these two integral characters are named after Seuss and his widow - by finding her the last, real, tree. Because Ted and Audrey live in a polluted world, one where there are no trees - except battery-powered artificial ones anyway - and the air is so toxic that fresh air is bottled and sold by the villainous Mr. O'Hare (Rob Riggle). The reason for the pollution and lack of trees is purportedly known by a mysterious shut-in known as the Once-ler (Ed Helms). The Once-ler recounts how he arrived in a beautiful land, filled with the beautiful Truffula trees and adorable wildlife; intent on chopping down the trees to create his multi-purpose Thneeds. However, the mystical and eponymous Lorax (Danny DeVito), who "speaks for the trees", soon arrived, to try and convince the Once-ler to stop, to change his ways. The film follows from there.

So, it's a great premise and a strong story, but it's one muddied with recycled plot points and underdeveloped characters. The core characters from the original Seuss book, the Once-ler and The Lorax, are great and both funny in places, and the relationship between them is a very good one. It's by far and away the most interesting relationship in the film, and packs the most punch in terms of emotional strength. They are both well voiced, also, with Ed Helms (The US Office) lending his comic skills and inherent likeability to the role - although during the song "How Bad Can I Be?", the Once-ler was particularly un-likeable - and Danny DeVito provides a surprisingly thoughtful, and predictably funny, reading of The Lorax. However, Ted and Audrey felt underdeveloped and generic - not helped by their kid-friendly voice actors, Zac Efron and Taylor Swift, who only served to irritate.

But, while some of the main characters grated my nerves, there were some characters that I absolutely adored: the forest animals. We know how well Illumination do cute, silent (or, more accurately, gibberish speaking) side-characters, after witnessing the huge success of the Minions from Despicable Me. The Minions have had apps, short-films, and now even a theme-park ride dedicated to them; they're part of the company's logo, they're the focus of the teaser for Despicable Me 2 (which played to big laughs in front of The Lorax), and now they're even getting their own spin-off movie - directed by The Lorax co-director Kyle Balda, due in 2014. And the cute side-characters here are just as good, I particularly liked the bears. They were one of the few parts of the film that always worked, they were funny, they were wonderfully animated, they were cute, and, at times, emotionally resonant.

I did enjoy The Lorax, and it's an acceptable - and smart - strategy by Illumination to reuse ideas, plot points and character quirks that have worked well in other films, but it does take you out of the moment, and leave you with no burning desire to pay attention, if you think that you've seen this all before. I absolutely loved Despicable Me, I thought it was clever, funny (very funny) and at times touching, with fantastic, French-CG animation; The Lorax, in comparison, felt average. Most of the wit and finesse from Despicable Me is gone, replaced instead by much more child-aimed comedy. Despite this, the animation remains utterly fantastic. Carried out by Illumination's French animation subsidiary, Illumination Mac Guff, the insanely imaginative Seussian locations, characters and backdrops are a wonder to behold; the forest creatures, the Truffula trees and the titular Lorax are all particularly magnificent. The colours and the crispness of the animation are a testament to quality animation.

Although the screenplay is faithful to the book, the jokes are, as stated, inconsistent, and some just don't go over well at all. There's the occasional cheesy joke and one of the biggest cringe-moments I've ever had in the cinema, where Audrey proudly exclaimed "it's called photosynthesis!" That said, although most of the film is silly, it does have a very good moral message and enforces the importance of environmental preservation very well - although it can at times cross the border from morally conscious into preachy. And Illumination (and Seuss of course) deserve big props for making a film and story with such a responsible message. The last few minutes are surprisingly poignant and emotional too, with the resolution of the relationship between the Once-ler and the Lorax. It was a very strong point, and a nice, emotional end to what had, in places, became a muddled story.

Because, whilst The Lorax may be unoriginal and its story a little muddled, it was generally quite funny. There were a few jokes that were too cheesy (although the kids seemed to lap them up), but in general it was a very funny film. The Betty White voiced Grammy Norma was a hoot. The pantomime characters, like the hilariously brash and villainous O'Hare's (although he was a little too similar to Despicable Me's Vector) bulky bodyguards and the brilliant forest animals, were particularly brilliant. The singing fish, on the unoriginality side, were a bit too reminiscent of the singing slugs in Aardman's Flushed Away - but they were hilarious.

Another plus point for The Lorax was the music. As well as a good score by John Powell, there were some great original songs, and keeping in the Seuss spirit, they were hilariously random. I particularly liked the wonderful intro-song, "Thneedville", and the poignant end-song, "Let it Grow". Admittedly, at times, the songs felt a bit like overkill, but when they worked, they worked well.

As previously stated, I very much liked the ending as well, it wrapped up a good - but a bit disappointing - film in a very good way, and left me with a slightly better impression than I might otherwise have had. Because, all in all, The Lorax was certainly not a bad film, it was just an unoriginal one. It lacks the polish and finesse of Despicable Me, but you'll enjoy it for what it is, a fun, but flawed, film with charm, great songs and fantastic animation. Not forgetting its great moral message, because:

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better. It's not."


It's also worth mentioning as well, that I very much enjoyed the new Universal Pictures 100th Anniversary logo, animated by Peter Jackson's Weta Digital. Watch it here.

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