The works of the inimitable Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, have in this century yielded three feature films, two of which – 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and 2003’s The Cat in the Hat – are utterly unwatchable. How fortunate we are, then, that producer Chris Meledandri, the man responsible for the lone successful (and by “successful” I mean good) Seuss film, 2008’s CG-animated Horton Hears a Who!, also happens to be one guiding the upcoming adaptation of The Lorax, the good doctor’s 1971 environmental fable, to the big screen – and not least because it keeps Brian Grazer away from the material.
For any number of reasons, The Lorax is a tougher cinematic nut to crack than Horton, which charmed critics and audiences alike with its simple themes of compassion and assertiveness, earning nearly $300 million worldwide at the box office. At a mere 45 pages, The Lorax is the shortest of Seuss’ adapted books; its main character, the Once-ler, speaks mostly from behind a boarded-up window, never revealing his face; and its story presents an unambiguous critique of industry, depicting it as callous and unyielding in its exploitation of nature. At a time in which America’s manufacturing sector has all but disappeared and a significant portion of the population believes capitalism to be an endangered species, such a message might prove a tough sell to audiences.
In a recent Lorax preview event at the headquarters of his production house, Illumination Entertainment, Meledandri gave a detailed look at how he and his filmmakers handled the tricky task of fashioning a 40-year-old fable into a modern-day blockbuster.
Expanding the Lorax Universe
Long on illustrations and short on text, Seuss’ book contains scarcely enough material for a half-hour TV special, let alone a feature-length film. Stretching it out necessitated adding new story elements and expanding on existing ones, always eyeing the source material as a guide. “I think that when it comes to the expansion of the storytelling, there was absolutely a need to be interpretive,” said Meledandri. “What happens before page one? What happens between the pages? What happens afterwards? Those are the places that we looked to, but with an idea that at the center of the movie is still what he wrote.”
In Seuss’ story, an anonymous boy wanders into a battered wasteland “at the far end of town,” where he encounters the Once-ler, a solitary shut-in who tells him the tale of the “Lifted Lorax.” In the film, the boy is given a name (Ted), a voice, (provided by Zac Efron), and a narrative thread all his own. “When you look at the very first page of the book, what you see is the town that the boy lives in,” explained Meledandri. “That for us became kind of a clue, which is to say, okay, what was that town like? What was the boy’s experience before he decided to go out and look for the Once-ler and the Lorax?”
Ted’s neighborhood resembles just about any other suburban community, with a lone exception: It’s almost entirely synthetic. “In the world he comes from, there’s nothing natural,” explained Meledandri. “People just love living that way, because everything is manufactured and artificial. If you don’t have trees, you can certainly have fake trees, and everybody loves them.” Accustomed to their array of ultra-modern conveniences, the townsfolk live in blissful ignorance of the ecological devastation that lies beyond their borders.
Exploring the Once-ler’s Origins
Curiosity and the enticements of a pretty girl (voiced by Taylor Swift) inspire Ted to venture outside the city walls in pursuit of a tree – a real one – which lands him on the doorstep of the Once-ler’s shambling abode. Perhaps the film’s most significant departure from its source is in its rendering of the Once-ler. “One of the decisions we made when we were going into this is that we would depict the old Once-ler very much as in the book, which is we were gonna see eyes and arms,” Meledandri recounted. “But as we were talking about the story within the story – What happened and how did the world get this way? – we made the decision that we were actually going to have to see the character as a young man.”
The Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms, star of TV’s The Office) becomes much more of a fully-realized character in the film, and not merely a symbol of industrial avarice. “We looked for clues within the book to also start the Once-ler story prior to where we pick him up in movie,” said Meledandri. “We depict him as a guy who starts out with a very simple objective, but when he rubs up against a chance to be successful, that greed takes him off and he loses his sense of values.” Meledandri admitted that humanizing the Once-ler inevitably changes Seuss’ story, but insisted that “the way in which we’ve treated him, we very much still honor the core idea of what Geisel was going for.”
The Lorax Cometh
The Once-ler’s entrepreneurial ambition sparks the idea for the Thneed, “a fine something that all people need,” made from the tuft of a Truffula Tree. When the Once-ler chops down his first tree, he summons the diminutive Lorax (voiced by the diminutive Danny DeVito), Guardian of the Forest and harbinger of ecological doom. “If you read this book very carefully, what you realize is that the Lorax’s role is to continually warn him: ‘Something bad is going to happen … Something bad is going to happen …’” said Meledandri. “In the building of the story, that’s keeping the storyline in a fairly static place. The storytelling and the directorial presentation of that interaction between those characters definitely became more interpretive.” In the film, the Lorax is more active in his defense of the forest, mounting different schemes to curb the Once-ler’s wanton clear-cutting.
The Once-ler’s actions yield predictable consequences for the environment. “Ultimately he ends up in the place where we find him in the beginning of the movie, which is a character who may not even know it himself, but he clearly wants redemption,” said Meledandri. “That’s kind of the arc of his character, and therefore his interest in developing this relationship with the kid, because the kid can become the agent for his redemption.”
Staying True to Seuss
Meledandri insisted that humanizing the Once-ler and other such efforts at broadening and contemporizing The Lorax haven’t diluted its strident environmental message. “I think it’s pretty much embedded in what [Seuss] created,” he stressed. “He was writing a story about how greed could lead to a level of unconscious behavior that could have effects that [are] somewhat disastrous. That’s at the center of the story. We would never veer away from that. It’s the essence of what he’s writing about.”
While he assured us that The Lorax is “not a movie that’s didactic,” Meledandri readily conceded that its themes won’t click with all audiences: “There are elements that are integral to the core ideas of this movie, and if some people choose to resist that, that’s what’s going to happen.” In the end, however, he clings to the notion, espoused by Dr. Seuss himself, that a well-told story can function to change peoples’ minds. “The idea is that you engage people, and if you’re successful at engaging them, then it buys you the ability to tell a story that might result in a little shift in how they view the world when they leave the theater.”
The Lorax opens everywhere – in 3D – March 2, 2012.
Digital animation start-up Illumination Entertainment burst onto the scene last year with its debut feature, Despicable Me, a modestly-budgeted (by animation standards) tale of a supervillain-turned-father of the year that went on to earn over a half-billion dollars worldwide, surpassing even the rosiest box-office estimates. With expectations running high, Illumination aims to build on that success with the help of … a bunny that poops jelly beans?
Yes, a bunny that poops jelly beans. That’s just one of the signature twists to the Easter Bunny mythos to be found in the company’s sophomore effort, Hop, a combination live-action/cg-animated comedy starring Russell Brand as the voice of E.B., a young hare who’d rather whale on his drumset than deliver Easter baskets to candy-starved children.
In an exclusive interview with Hollywood.com, Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri explained how the whole jelly bean excrement thing came to be, and provided updates on two of his company’s much-anticipated upcoming projects, The Lorax, based on the popular Dr. Seuss book, and a Tim Burton-directed reboot of The Addams Family, as well:
What drove the decision to make Hop a combination of live-action and CG-animation as opposed to all-CG?
It never occurred to us that this film would live in any other expression except a combination of real-world and cg-world, just by the very nature of this notion that we’re going to reveal aspects of a mythology that we’re all very familiar with, that we’re going to add depth to that mythology and part the curtain and look behind it. And the notion that the son of the Easter Bunny is going to come into our world and come into the life of a human character just immediately suggested that mode of expression. We sought to integrate it with this other, fantastical world, but to do it in a way that was utterly convincing and real, so that audiences would suspend disbelief.
A key portion of that new mythology you mentioned is that you have an Easter Bunny that excretes jelly beans. How did that idea originate, and were there any debates about how it might be received by audiences?
That idea belongs to our writers. For me, that idea -- that one of the qualities of the Easter Bunny is that they poop jelly beans – took me a while to settle into. As ridiculous as it seems for us to be talking about the nuance of this idea … I don’t think I really appreciated the idea until Tim [Hill] and Chris Bailey, the animation director, and the team that animated it did the most ridiculously funny, nuanced performance of this act actually happening. So it was like all of the sudden, through the acting, it transcended the idea of a character pooping jelly beans because the acting is so amazing in that moment. But I do have to say that I was probably the last guy to board the “pooping jelly beans” train.
I can’t help but wonder how many children will be asking their parents if that’s where jelly beans really come from.
I know. It’s just one of those things where I think it’s best not to think too much about it. And the only reason I can tell you that is because I’ve actually done all of that thinking about it, and it hasn’t led me anyplace good. And yet every time people see the movie, they laugh harder at that scene than almost anything else. So I’ve gone through all of these conversations in my head – and with the team – and now they get to look at me and say, “Remember all those conversations you made us have about this, and your anxiety about it? Just listen to the audience’s response.” And I go, “Okay, all right.”
Your next film in the pipeline is The Lorax. Obviously, since it’s a Dr. Seuss book, you’re wedded to a certain animation style. How do you effectively differentiate it from previous Dr. Seuss films without betraying the source material?
It is, absolutely, a primary issue that we deal with. I’d done Horton, and it’s very important to me that, in choosing to do another film, I’m not re-living something that we’ve already done. I have very, very strong feelings about Ted Geisel, the stories that he told, and the role that he played in the last century. I’m very committed to continuing his legacy. There were a couple of really great things that he gave us. One is the incredible character of the Lorax himself. The first threshold issue that we faced when Audrey Geisel asked me to explore The Lorax, the first issue was: Can we translate that very simple line-drawn [character] into a fully realized, dimensional character. The Lorax himself, as a character, is very distinctive, and while he has the Geisel signature, he’s very different from The Cat or Horton or The Grinch. He’s sort of the defining center of the film. The other thing is that The Lorax was a book that [Geisel] illustrated toward the end of his career, in 1971, and he departed from his regular color palette. Which opened another door for us in terms of giving it a distinctive look. As you go through the iconic elements in the book, he gave us little doorways that really helped us to create a film that is going to be distinctly different from Horton, which is what I [reference], because it’s the only other CG-animated Dr. Seuss film.
Your stop-motion Addams Family project appears to be gaining momentum. What’s its status right now?
Well, we hired Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to write the script, and they’ve got a great working relationship with Tim Burton. It’s in the scripting stage now, and I’d say it’s probably going to stay there for the next six months.
I imagine a lot of it’s dependent on Burton and his schedule, as well.
It’s entirely dependent on Tim and his schedule. If everything goes according to plan, we still wouldn’t be able to start production until Frankenweenie winds down. So if everything falls into place, our progress can’t move faster than Frankenweenie will allow.
You’ve got a pretty ambitious slate of upcoming projects, including a sequel to Despicable Me. Do you feel that the success of Despicable Me, which surpassed just about everyone’s expectations, bought Illumination a little breathing room, now that you’ve sort of proven your mettle?
It’s funny, because a lot of people ask me whether or not the success of Despicable Me puts more pressure on me, and I actually never looked at it that way. I looked at it similarly to what you have suggested, that it give me more breathing room. The challenges of the success of Despicable Me are quite unique; it’s really the challenge to not allow the success of it to distract you from what the original strategy is. And the original strategy was to make films that are reflective of ideas and themes and characters that I hope will connect with audiences, but to do that for budgets that will allow us to have a greater chance at profitability. I feel that once you get to that place where the pressure that you’re placing on the film is to perform as a blockbuster, that that dictates so many decisions and takes away from the ability of the core creative team to just make their movie. So the challenge is to stay disciplined and hold to that strategy, and to accept the fact that every film is going to have a different result. As great as it is to be a part of a movie as successful as Despicable Me, Hop will have its own result.
Hop is now playing in theaters everywhere.
Universal Pictures scored this year with the 3D CGI comedy Despicable Me. The film, produced by Chris Meledandri's Illumination Entertainment, was the studio's biggest hit of the year and has made Meledandri's company a cornerstone of its production stable. His next project is Hop, a live action/animated hybrid that stars Russell Brand, James Marsden, Kaley Cuoco and more.
The film tells the comic tale of Fred (Marsden), an out-of-work slacker who accidentally injures the Easter Bunny (voiced by Brand) and must take him in as he recovers. As Fred struggles with the world's worst houseguest, both will learn what it takes to finally grow up. Directed by Tim Hill (Alvin & the Chipmunks), Hop bounces into theaters on April 1st, 2011, but you can get your first look at the lovable bunny below as Universal has released the first poster for the film! Check it out!
Source: Universal Pictures