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.