My generation has been whining for years about our childhoods being collectively over, in light of the end of the Harry Potter series, the death of the creators of The Berenstain Bears, and countless other life-passages coming to a close. It’s good to know, with the theatrical release this weekend of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, that something important from our childhoods—and previous generations of childhoods—has survived and is still going strong. Though the good doctor himself, Theodor Geisel, has passed on, his legacy is still alive, well, and ready to be tested in Smackville.
If you want to get technical here, The Lorax should be the reigning champion, because his original movie debuted in 1972. However, he then went into a long hibernation, vacating his title. Now, the one who speaks for the trees has made a comeback, but times have changed. In the realm of computer-generated Seuss, the reigning king is Horton Hears A Who. Horton meant what he said and said what he meant, so when he says he’s coming for the guardian of the forest, The Once-ler chopping down trees for thneeds should be the last of The Lorax’s worries.
Let’s go to the action and see which of Geisel’s gladiators reigns supreme.
Loosely based on the beloved children’s book of the same name, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax tells the story of a young boy named Ted, who sets out to acquire a tree for the girl of his dreams, even though there are no more trees left. During his hunt, he meets The Once-ler, who explains the story of The Lorax and what really happened to the trees. Featuring the vocal talents of Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, Betty White, Ed Helms and Danny DeVito as the title character, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax is the fourth feature film based on one of Dr. Seuss’ books, and only the second one to be fully computer-animated. It was released on March 2, 2012, what would have been Seuss’ 108th birthday.
I went to a midnight screening of the film in the University City section of Philadelphia and wasn’t expecting a huge crowd, since Thursday night is a big party night for the area. But the theater was well attended by young adults, all apparently in the mood to relive their childhoods. I found this to be a faithful adaptation of the source material. It was a little weird seeing The Once-ler portrayed as an actual human being, as opposed to his more ambiguous image in the original and in the TV movie, but I assume writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (who also scripted Horton, with additional story help from Jeff Siergey) were trying to convey that any and every person could be corrupted by greed and fame.
Given Dr. Seuss’ penchant for rhyming, it would seem logical to create original songs for the film. (It definitely worked for Suessical: The Musical.) However, despite casting singing stars such as Taylor Swift and Zac Efron, it is Ed Helms who carries the vocals here. This is not to take anything away from Helms, who did fine, despite having to show up with proverbial a knife to a gunfight.
The Defending Champion
Horton Hears a Who! is the third feature film based on a Dr. Suess book and is the second most successful one after How The Grinch Stole Christmas, which also starred Jim Carrey, who plays Horton. The movie follows the title character, who finds a speck of dust that contains an entire civilization called Whoville on it. In order to protect Whoville’s mayor (Steve Carell) and the rest of the citizens, Horton tries to make his way to the top of Mt. Nool, which will be a “safer, more stable home” for the Whos.
While on his journey, Horton encounters some naysayers in the jungle who think he’s gone crazy, specifically The Sour Kangaroo. Worried that Horton’s insanity will spread to the children she teaches, Sour Kangaroo enlists the services of a vulture named Vlad Vladikoff to get rid of Horton’s speck by force.
The voice cast of Horton is impressive as well, featuring Carrey, Carell, Will Arnett, Seth Rogan, Isla Fisher, Jonah Hill, Amy Poehler, Jesse McCartney and the legendary Carol Burnett as the Sour Kangaroo. The animation is top-notch, even switching at one point to Japanese-style anime when Horton was daydreaming about keeping the speck safe.
Both films uphold the Dr. Seuss legacy in both tone and animation, yet each is distinctly different. Horton Hears a Who! was made by Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox, which also did the Ice Age movies. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax was made by Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures, which did Despicable Me. Both have their merits in animation, but Lorax had the added pressure of 3D. While everything looked fine, the 3D technology didn’t really add much to the film for me. Not to be a stickler, but they did pull some hokey 3D tricks a couple of times. That might work for the kiddies, but I prefer a 3D that enhances the overall viewing experience, not creates a gimmick. Horton didn’t need the gimmick to deliver an involving experience.
But what about the messages of the films? Dr. Suess’ stories are supposed to teach kids lessons to hopefully have them grow into upstanding citizens of the world. Or if you prefer—and we don’t—to indoctrinate a new generation of little socialists. (Seriously. Check Fox News if you think I’m making this up.) A big worry with these two films, on either side of the political spectrum, is whether or not the filmmakers would whack us over the head with their message. Even when I read the books as a child, I found The Lorax to be a bit preachy with its environmentalism, but of the two, I found that Horton’s message of “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” to come across as the more annoying one. I mean, I did go to Catholic school as a child, so I heard that argument over and over again. Luckily, neither film created an eye-rolling experience. While Lorax hammered the more obvious point, there was enough entertaining stuff to help disguise it.
While both stories are classics worthy of attention as films, I found more interesting story arcs in Lorax than I did in Horton. For me, it was more interesting to see Ted change from wanting to get a tree for Audrey to wanting to actually save the trees. Also, seeing the Once-ler’s change at the end provided a nice moment between him and his frenemy, The Lorax. Horton’s journey to keep Whoville safe was nice to watch, but it involved less dynamic characters.
Except for Mike Meyers’ attempt at The Cat in the Hat, it’s hard to find a Seuss adaptation that isn’t good. Luckily the doctor’s widow assures us we won’t be getting any more live-action adaptations any time soon. Both these competitors put up a good fight, especially with big guns such as Carrey, Carell, DeVito and Helms in play. Although I will always love both of these stories and enjoy watching these films, I’ll declare the winner of this Smack to be Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, but not by much. Little Kid Ben found it to be a little preachy, but Slightly More Adult Ben likes the Once-ler’s enduring message: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.”