Dr. Seuss died in 1991, saving him from the gaudy, big-screen abominations of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (2000) and "Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat" (2003). These weren't just bad movies; they were hyperkinetic nuisances, antithetical to the wise economy of the good Doctor.
Now, after a passable "Horton Hears a Who" (2008), "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" gets a shot. If the results aren't sublime, they're hardly embarrassing.
Directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda, two of the minds behind "Despicable Me," this animated environmentalist parable is too busy for its own good (gotta keep the little ones engaged), and a little overstuffed with story. But the design is witty and imaginative, and the small grace notes are enough to keep an open-minded adult giggling.
"The Lorax" also happens to have something on its mind: If Fox News objected to the menace of "The Muppets," this bit of tree huggery might give someone a conniption.
The story unfolds in the town of Sneedville, filled by imitation shrubbery and bottled air (sadly no use of the Radiohead song "Fake Plastic Trees"). A flashback shows how a misguided entrepreneur wiped out plant life years previous, over the protests of a mustachioed forest guardian called the Lorax (Danny DeVito). Now pollution fills the air and a ruthless, pint-size tycoon (voiced by Rob Riggle) lords over an artificial empire.
What could possibly transform this dire state? Love, of course. Young Ted (Zac Efron) has a thing for young Audrey (Taylor Swift). Audrey wants a tree. So Ted is determined to find one.
Like "Despicable Me," ''The Lorax" shows a fascination with gizmos, elaborate mechanisms and twisty action sequences. We get a high-flying granny (voiced, of course, by Betty White), and a trio of singing goldfish that made me smile with every appearance. It's all pleasant enough, if a bit stretched at 94 minutes.
"The Lorax" was first published in 1971, one year after the creation of Earth Day, in the thick of the modern environmental movement. The movie arrives amid concerns over climate change. But Dr. Seuss was always attuned to social and political issues — as a young political cartoonist he inveighed against fascism — and he stayed engaged through his more famous work. In other words, it was little surprise to find him speaking, via the Lorax, for the trees.
"Dr. Seuss' The Lorax"
The Universal release is rated PG for brief mild language. Running time: 94 minutes.