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Who’s the Real Star of “The Lorax”?

March 4, 2012

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax cleaned up at the box office this weekend, raking in $70.7 million—which is good news, since there will be plenty of plaintiffs for the class action suit I’m planning to file against NBC Universal for false advertising. What are the grounds? Well, the movie is called The Lorax and the titular orange furball voiced by Danny DeVito has been seen everywhere from AMC Theatres’ “silence is golden” disclaimers to virtually every NBC primetime series (disturbingly, he even ambled across the screen during an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit last week).

But here’s the beef: The Lorax is barely in the movie! He’s mostly only seen in the slow-paced first half-hour—which could’ve been called The Snore-ax—befriending a boy named Ted (blandly voiced by Zac Efron) who wants to impress a girl, Audrey (the equally colorless Taylor Swift), by growing a tree in the barren dystopia where they live. The movie doesn’t come alive until the real star shows up… and it’s not Al Gore-ax, despite conservatives critics who claim this is an animated version of An Inconvenient Truth meant to indoctrinate youngsters into the radical environmentalist movement. (By the way, it is, and I have no problem with that.)

No, the real star of The Lorax is The Once-Ler, a hermit (brilliantly voiced by Ed Helms) who shares via flashbacks the story of how he went from well-meaning entrepreneur to landscape-raping tycoon. He exuberantly raps one song—and don’t be mistaken, Seuss was the original rap Dr., long before Dre—called “How Bad Can I Be?” that extols capitalism’s surivival-of-the-fittest mentality and is just begging to be spoofed by “Weird Al” Yankovic as “How Bad Is Mitt Romney?”

The Once-Ler isn’t a one-dimensional villain; he’s more like Scrooge, a fascinatingly complex character who reconnects with the glimmer of humanity inside him thanks to Tiny Tim—er, Ted. The movie’s true bad guy is Mr. O’Hare (Rob Riggle—like Helms, a veteran of The Daily Show), a Napoleonic tyrant who’s made a killing selling bottled air. (Riggle was also on SNL, and the vocal roster includes fellow alums Jenny Slate, Nasim Pedrad and a scene-stealing Betty White.) O’Hare’s an entertaining figure, but he represents an inherent problem of Dr. Seuss movies; he’s not in the book, nor is Audrey, but to fill out the slim narrative to 90 minutes, love interests and antagonists and chases have to be added, and these clichés are not really in the Seussian spirit.

And what gets lost? The language. One of the reasons why Dr. Seuss’ books have stood the test of time is they’re so much fun for parents to read and for kids to hear, thanks to the musical wordplay. To maintain that singsong cadence for an hour and a half would be torturous, however. And that’s why—despite the fact that The Lorax is vastly superior to the live-action atrocities committed in the name of Theodor Geisel by Jim Carrey and Mike Myers—the best Seuss adaptation ever remains Chuck Jones’ 1966 half-hour animated special How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which faithfully preserves the original text as well as its visual style. The Lorax falls in the middle of the Seuss pack alongside 2008’s Horton Hears a Who!, featuring the voices of Carrey and another Daily Show alum Steve Carell.

Carell, of course, also costarred with Helms on The Office, and like The Lorax, NBC’s sitcom seems unwilling to admit that Helms’ Andy Bernard should be the show’s real lead now that Carell’s Michael Scott has departed. Instead, The Office tried to hedge its bets, bringing in James Spader as inscrutable CEO Robert California, and that experiment in decentralization has failed. Which explains why Spader’s exiting the show at the end of this season.

So what does Helms have to do to get his moment in the spotlight? He’s had to share credit with Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis for the Hangover smashes and he was overshadowed by the omnipresent John C. Reilly in last year’s underrated indie Cedar Rapids. And his next film, Jeff, Who LIves at Home (opening in limited release on March 16), isn’t going to help. Once again, he’s not the title character—that’d be a slacker played by Jason Segel. Helms gets most of the movie’s meager laughs as Jeff’s brother, Pat, a paint-store stiff who suspects his wife (Judy Greer) might be cheating on him. (At times, Jeff plays like The Descendants for idiots—there’s even a scene of them peering over a shrub, a la George Clooney.)

The problem with Jeff isn’t that he lives at home—it’s that his movie was written and directed by the Duplass brothers, the “mumblecore” auteurs responsible for Cyrus, my least favorite film of 2010 (and another showcase for John C. Reilly’s tiresome shlubbiness). While Jeff isn’t as insufferable as Cyrus, it shares the same eyesore visuals—Susan Sarandon, as Jeff and Pat’s mom, has never looked worse—and softheaded scripting.

Based on the Duplass’ pathetic box-office track record, I seriously doubt enough people will see Jeff, Who Lives at Home to warrant a class action suit for cruel and unusual cinematic punishment. But to put it in terms the Lorax—and the Once-ler—would surely understand, it’s about as much fun as watching a tree grow.

Did The Lorax grow on you? Post a comment!

 

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