Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (review)

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax red light

I’m “biast” (pro): who doesn’t like Dr. Seuss?

I’m “biast” (con): the trailer looked hideous and sexist; Hollywood has screwed up Dr. Seuss before

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Boys Will Be the Center of Attention

The preponderance of male protagonists in Hollywood movies is a problem in the aggregate: it’s frustrating to see endless successions of stories about boys and men having adventures and growing as people, but it’s very hard and almost always unfair to single out any individual film to criticize on that basis. The crisis isn’t that The Movies tell too many men’s stories, or that men’s stories aren’t worth telling — it’s that we don’t see an equal number of stories featuring girls and women having adventures and growing as people.

But once in a while a film comes along — as Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax has — that demonstrates that it’s no accident that men’s stories predominate, and shows us just how blinkered, narrowminded, and pig-headedly sexist Hollywood is when it comes to ignoring female perspectives. The industry simply doesn’t see girls’ and women’s lives and needs as worthy of telling stories about… not even when one particular girl’s desires are the obvious driver for the story being told.

For The Lorax isn’t merely one more story about a boy that could just as easily have been about a girl: it’s a story that has a female protagonist right at hand, with motivations directly connected to the themes and morals the story wishes to explore, and she is shuffled off to the side. Audrey (the voice of Taylor Swift: Valentine’s Day) lives in the plastic candy-colored dystopia of Thneedville, where the grass is fake, the foliage is electric, and even fresh air is a commodity for sale. And she longs for nature: “What I want more than anything in the whole wide world is to see a living tree,” she sighs dreamily, for there is not one single living tree to be found in Thneedville.

Audrey is the creation of screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, who were tasked with the job of expanding to feature length Theodor Geisel’s short picture book [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] . She is the direct result of Daurio and Paul’s dilemma of how to tell for the screen a story about a quest to find out why the world is in such poor and unnatural shape; a visit to a creature known as the Once-ler, who holds the key to unraveling this mystery; and a message that unless there is someone who cares deeply about trees and nature and humanity’s impact on the environment, nothing will change.

And what did Daurio and Paul do with Audrey? Did they make her the central character, a person whose deep love for trees represents so powerful a concern that it can change the world? Of course not. They went on to invent Ted (the voice of Zac Efron: The Lucky One, New Year’s Eve), who doesn’t care about anything at all beyond impressing Audrey. It is this imperative — that Ted make Audrey his girlfriend — that is the key driving force behind this story about the destruction of the natural world and the way to restore it to its former glory.

I want to be perfect clear about this: the adolescent sexual desperation of Ted, who appears to be no more than 13 or 14 years old, is considered of more consequence in this world and to this world than the actual environmental-minded dreams and fantasies of Audrey, who isn’t even Ted’s peer but is clearly a couple of years older than him. (The team of Daurio and Paul also perpetrated the hideous Hop and the even more hideous Horton Hears a Who! — their Despicable Me is clearly an outlier of quality that was an aberration.)

Imagine you are a little girl watching The Lorax. What do you learn from it? You discover that even if you are deeply worried about the pressing issues of the world, what you think and feel doesn’t matter next to the necessity of forming a romantic relationship with a boy; your concerns needn’t motivate you to take any action, and your concerns matter only insomuch as they motivate a boy to like-you like you. Of course, this is an abhorrent and sexist message to send to little boys, too: that your primary motivation in life should be to impress girls, even in the face of civilization-threatening disaster. You needn’t have any interests of your own, as long as you can fake it when girls are around, in order that they may let you kiss them.

Now I feel I must forestall the usual howls that get hurled at me when I talk about movies from a feminist perspective. This is most certainly not me overreaching for a reason to complain about Hollywood. The abhorrent gender dynamics of The Lorax contribute very specifically to the horror of tedium and heavyhandedness that is this poor excuse for a children’s film. Because there is no reasonable motivation for Ted’s actions in leaving the Terry Gilliam’s Brazil-esque “sanctuary” of Thneedville on his quest to find a real-live-tree for Audrey — unless you sincerely believe that teenaged boys are nothing but perpetual erections — The Lorax must bend over backwards, in whatever ridiculous ways it deems necessary, in order to hold itself together. Except it cannot even manage that. So much of the padding-out we are subjected to is actively nonsensical. The villain here is the profit-hungry mayor of Thneedville, O’Hare (the voice of Rob Riggle: 21 Jump Street, Big Miracle), an Edna Mode wannabe, except Edna Mode was interesting and brought a unique voice of dissent to a world that needed it. O’Hare is making a fortune selling the residents of Thneedville clean air, an absurdity that is allegedly sent up in one sequence featuring a TV ad that uses sex to sell bottled air — as in, Men should buy this brand of bottled air because sexy women will want to fuck them if they do. That might be funny and pointed if the story weren’t doing the same thing: wanting us to be engaged by the prospect of a teenaged boy who will “get lucky” (if only on a PG-rated kiddie scale) if he behaves in a certain way.

The bizarre bloody-mindedness of the film to ignore its own blinders gets increasingly infuriating. When the Once-ler (the voice of Ed Helms: Jeff, Who Lives at Home, The Hangover Part II), living out in the denuded wastelands, demands of Ted an explanation for his interest in hearing the story of the destruction of the trees, Ted can only hem and haw — I cannot help but wonder if, at this point in their narrative, Daurio and Paul suddenly realized that they’d chosen the wrong protagonist, for Audrey would have had a stirring and passionate answer for the Once-ler where Ted has none. Then again, it’s clear that Daurio and Paul have even less respect for women when they’re not conventionally pretty like Audrey. For they have the Lorax (the voice of Danny DeVito: Solitary Man, Nobel Son), a sort of forest guardian who stars in the Once-ler’s flashbacky tale about the cutting down of the trees, make fun of a woman who doesn’t fit into narrow notions of femininity. One would think that a character meant to be a spiritual representation of nature would not hold the same chauvinistic views of gender norms that some humans do, but no.

This is the bit where I’m supposed to talk about how lovely the animation is and find other nice stuff to say about the film. Fuck that shit. This is a disgusting example of the worse that Hollywood has to offer, because it represents how far over backward the industry will bend to perpetuate its own horrible “ideals,” even when they are completely contradictory to the story it wants to tell. No amount of pretty animation can overcome that.

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