Welcome to our Is Cinema series. We spotlight films that receive far from universal approval. Despite mixed feedback, they refuse to fade away by holding a unique spot within pop culture. This chapter is on The Lorax.
For an animated children’s film that’s only 86 minutes long, The Lorax is pretty divisive. Illumination’s 2012 adaptation of Dr. Suess’ treasured book of the same name was met with loud negativity upon release, but that hasn’t stopped it from carrying a persisting impact across an entire generation that grew up with and around it. While Dr. Suess is famous for his quirky, heartfelt, and colorful children’s stories that have thrived for decades, Illumination’s track record consists of very safe and polished films. They more than often keep the emotional impact at surface level while targeting a profitable, easy to please demographic. The clash between these two styles hindered The Lorax’s faithful adaptability, but not all changes were necessarily poor. Illumination’s adaptation is far from forgettable and its otherworldly impact on pop culture went beyond expectation, making the film’s place in cinema worth taking another look.
The original 1971 book is straightforward. A boy visits an elusive figure named the Once-ler, asking to hear what happened to the trees because he has never seen one before. The Once-ler tells the boy his tale. When came across the valley as a young adult, the Once-ler chopped down the native trees to produce a thneed, a knitted garment of his own invention. The Lorax was a small, mythical being that appeared to speak on the behest of the trees. The Lorax warns the Once-ler that only bad things will come from the destruction of the forest, including the displacement of the native animals and destruction of the beautiful landscape. Once the last tree is cut down, the thneeds cannot be produced, the Lorax disappears, and the Once-ler has nothing to do but blame himself as he lives the rest of his life in regret. The Once-ler gives the boy the last tree seed with the famous line: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not”. He believes this to be the heart of the last message the Lorax left for him.
The Lorax as a film is a bit different. When looking at the art, it’s clear that they tried to emulate Dr. Suess’ style in a 3D fashion. It’s not quite as dark and unique as the book, but it’s similar nevertheless. The trees are especially brought to life in a gratifying way as well as the fish. Like in the book, at one point the fish walk on land. The fish also cock-a-doodle-doo like a rooster, which is a very charming and welcome addition in stylization. There are noticeable action and humorous beats added only to make children laugh. These, by far, are the weakest points of the film and distract from the main message. If they were not included, Illumination’s attempt would be much stronger.
The voice acting is solid with a cast consisting of Zac Effron, Jenny Slate, Taylor Swift, Betty White, Ed Helms, and Danny DeVito. They each bring a personality to their roles and maintain an essence that is usually lost when opting for a celebrity voice cast. It’s also a musical, but the film is not oversaturated with songs. Each song successfully works in either characterization or moving the plot forward. The film does not rhyme like Dr. Suess’ original work, so having a musical structure revives some of this lost lyricism and helps with the pacing. Since it’s a film and not a children’s novel, the run time was padded with further development not found in the book, but true to its core message.
The film adds a world-building element that works with the themes at hand. In Illumination’s adaptation, the town is called Thneedville and the boy is named Ted. Thneedville is enclosed by a wall that blocks the view of deforestation right outside its borders. The man who controls the city is Aloysius O’Hare, founder of O’Hare Air. Since all the trees were chopped down, the air quality of Thneedville is so poor that O’Hare can literally sell clean air to people. All, of course, in the process of becoming astronomically rich and powerful. He is shown sometimes presiding over his meetings from a hot air balloon pumping out toxic fumes to the residents. Again, he is literally above the inhabitants and jumps at the chance to poison them to line his own pockets. The meetings in question discuss selling air as a luxury commodity (through parodying an alcoholic or soda ad), rather than a basic necessity. This satirical visual of the rich elite extends the notion of greed and successfully expands upon the dangers of unregulated lust for capital.
O’Hare maintains control of Thneedville through deception of the populace. Thneedville itself is portrayed as bright and colorful with happy residents. In this situation, Illumination’s propensity to animate the world as saturated, flawless, and full of light is not a hindrance to the film – but an asset. When Ted first introduces the idea of getting a real tree to his mother, she scoffs at the idea, saying they already have a remote-controlled fake tree. The concern in the residents’ lives is centered around convenience and ease of use, the focus is on the aesthetic of living in a place where things are effortless and pretty to look at. This close-minded view paired with greed leads to the people’s undoing. The Once-ler would not have been able to sell so many thneeds if there was not a demand.
Through ignorance and apathy, O’Hare has become a zillionaire. To make sure he never loses control, he is constantly watching through hidden cameras. Through control of the illusion that all is right with Thneedville, he is able to hold on to his power. The presentation of Thneedville as a seemingly cheerful city despite being fundamentally broken and regulated as a secret surveillance state conveys how appearances are not apt measures for the quality of society. It’s instead tied to the relationship with nature and respect for themselves.
Without a doubt, the most successful and meaningful extension of The Lorax is surrounding the Once-ler. In the book, he was only seen as a pair of green gloves. He is obscured by a shadow on every page to convey how the Once-ler could be any one of us. None of us are truly immune to the temptations of greed. In the film, however, he takes shape as a character that anyone can relate to. He comes from the middle of nowhere and from a family who doesn’t believe in him. Plagued by self-doubt and held together by a dream of selling thneeds one day, he takes off with the hope of making a name for himself.
Upon the Lorax’s first appearance, the Once-ler has little patience for him – but he is not without sympathy. After some bickering, the Lorax and the Once-ler reach an agreement that he can stay as long as he promises not to chop down any more trees. While in the book the Once-ler sold his thneed immediately, in the movie he is the butt of the joke in town. It takes some time before the value of his work is appreciated. During this time, the Lorax is the most supportive person in the Once-ler’s life and inquires about his well being. This aspect is missing from the book, but is important nonetheless. Innovation must not always come with destruction and there are ways to avoid abusing the resources at one’s disposal while realizing one’s potential.
When the Once-ler finally sells his thneed, there is the song short “Everybody Needs Thneed”. It touches on the consumerism of the people. The residents of the town are so desperate to own the latest thing, they will gladly pay to get it. It’s seen as a win for the Once-ler, but it’s also the beginning of his demise. It’s the increased demand that leads to the increased supply. If the townspeople were not greedy and obsessed with the convenience and fad of owning a thneed, the destruction of the valley would not happen. This works to further expand the idea of greed not just as the selfishness of the producer, but also from those who do not care where their products come from.
The pressure to ramp up production is not placed until the Once-ler’s family shows up to help. Instead of painstakingly harvesting the trees by hand, his family pushes him to chop down the trees. The Once-ler then devastatingly breaks his promise. Greed has always been understood as a personal drive, something born out of selfishness. But The Lorax casts greed in a shade of gray. It’s easy to empathize with feelings of inferiority and self-doubt. It’s easy to succumb to feelings of inadequacy and do something morally dubious in an attempt to fill a void. In that way, it’s easy to put the audience in the shoes of the Once-ler and further the message that anyone can become the villain of the story.
What comes next is the best moment of the film. The famous “How Bad Can I Be?” musical number. It’s only about 3 minutes long, but shows the Once-ler morphing into a rapacious monster through montage. He changes into a snazzy green suit complete with the gloves from the original novel, representing his transformation. Crossing the line of morality and breaking his promise leads to the Once-ler falling down a slippery slope. The song starts with the notion of “How bad can I be?” as a measure, if he should feel guilt or not. Yes, he is destroying all the trees, but he is also improving the economy. It’s a justification of his actions to assuage remorse. As the song goes on, it becomes more sinister. The Once-ler uses the fact that he donates to charity to deflect criticism, even though it’s revealed whom he donated to is just a member of his own family. These actions ultimately work to only line his pockets – just like O’Hare.
The Once-ler utilizes the media and PR to his advantage, hiding how egregious his actions really are. He mentions how lawyers are defending his behalf, meaning he is willing to walk the line of legality for personal benefit. A tonal dissonance in the song is introduced at the next chorus. “How bad can I be?” morphs into asking how bad will people let the Once-ler be. It’s almost a dare. How far can he go and still make money? Once again, the apathy of those around the Once-ler enables him. He is to blame, but also are those who give him the tools and are complicit in his destruction of the valley. It perfectly encapsulates the power of greed versus the apathy of the people.
In the sphere of pop culture, this scene had a bizarre destiny. In 2012, shortly after the film’s release, a small group of people on Tumblr birthed a unique Once-ler following to say the least. Fan content was made and everything was the norm until more and more started to rapidly hypersexualize the Once-ler. It was not confined to a small fanbase anymore, it was everywhere. It morphed when people realized the Once-ler had no romantic interest in the movie, so they created two distinct people out of the same character. Once-ler post “How Bad Can I Be?” was known as the Greed-ler and people shipped him with the Once-ler and called it “Oncest” or “Oncelercest”. A fandom centered entirely around a Dr. Suess character, representing a loss of control to greed, lost control themselves.
The Once-ler fandom burned out hard and fast once they realized they did not have much characterization to work with. They were basically creating new characters, but the legacy lives on. “How Bad Can I Be?” became the subject of distorted YouTube memes in the mid-2010s and to this day people still cosplay the Once-ler (and sometimes O’Hare) humorously on TikTok and make Once-ler video edits on Twitter. This movie will not be forgotten and while it lives in the consciousness of the people, it still has something to say.
O’Hare attempts to stop Ted from replanting the final seed at the climax . Ted knocks down the surrounding walls of the city, unveiling the real word to the people. Thneedville then chooses a new possibility by overruling O’Hare. Together they plant the seed with a musical number titled “Let It Grow”. It serves to contrast the film’s opening number, “Thneedville”, which reinforces the complacency of the residents as they call it a paradise and praise the production of new commodities. With “Let It Grow”, people finally care enough to change the toxicity they had previously accepted. The seven deadly were reflected by this point: the Once-ler as pride and greed, O’Hare as envy, wrath, and lust, and the people of Thneedville as sloth and gluttony. It’s only until the Once-ler repents, O’Hare is rejected, and the people mobilize that things are righted. In the final scene, the Lorax returns to see an old Once-ler finally feel fulfilled as the trees are returning to the valley. The film goes full circle to reinforce its thesis: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
There is an inherent question of ethicality when looking at this film as a whole. Illumination is not without fault and has its own hand in promoting consumerism, considering its insistence to market and sell the Minions (from Despicable Me) at every corner. The Lorax was released with promotion and partnerships with companies that encourage consumerism. While that is not uncommon for children’s films, it does raise the question of how sincere the message of the movie is. Is The Lorax being hypocritical? Maybe so, but it’s also a children’s film with a strong, consistent, and relevant message that does not contradict itself within the narrative.
Even though The Lorax has its issues, mainly how childish and heavy-handed it can be, it’s not vapid. It’s not reckless. It takes care to develop its themes and stay true to them within context. It’s clear the filmmakers were not incompetent and made strides to tell a classic tale in a modern way. It’s entertaining for children to watch and they will walk away with a better understanding of the dangers of unregulated greed. For better or for worse, it’s a movie that sticks with its audience. Strangely enough, when people remember the “How Bad Can I Be?” jokes, they are also remembering what the song is saying. Through its memes, the movie carries a legacy. The Lorax is cinema and does have value.