Film review: The Lorax

It’s no secret that Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) leaned a little to the left. His delightful, whimsical books often had an underlying tone that was anti-war, anti-tyrant, and anti-pollution. Or, to spin it more favorably, he wanted peace, freedom, and cleanliness.

Seuss’s The Lorax (1971) made a strong case for cleaning up the environment. It tells the story of a zealous young businessman, the Once-ler, who comes across a pristine forest of “Truffula Trees” and immediately begins chopping them down to use their silky leaves to make “thneeds” (the Seussian equivalent of an all-purpose Widget).  His irresponsible use of natural resources damages crops, dirties the air, and mucks up the water, causing the original inhabitants–the bear-like Barbaloots, birds, and fish–to move away in search of cleaner climes.

There is nothing subversive or socialistic about this charming little story. Libertarians, in fact, should welcome a story that privileges property rights (the critters, after all, were there first) and individual responsibility (the book ends with “unless someone like you / cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better. / It’s not.”) Basically Dr. Seuss is saying, “Play nice. If you make a mess clean it up. If someone was there first, wait your turn. Be responsible for your actions.”

Now Disney Studios has turned this gentle story about personal responsibility into a diatribe against individuality, free markets, and the entire capitalist system, with its animated version of the tale. They call it Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, but that’s a misnomer. This is Hollywood’s The Lorax, through and through. And it’s an insidious shadow of the original story.  The only thing missing from this indoctrination piece is a Five Year Plan.

The film version begins 50 years after the books ends, in the community of Thneedville, which is run by a crony capitalist named O’Hare (Rob Riggle).  The new story is reminiscent of The Truman Show (1998); the residents of Thneedville live inside a bubble city, oblivious to the desolation and pollution that exist just outside their city walls and ceiling.  Inside, “everything was plastic and fake and they liked it that way.” Somehow, they manage to enjoy a happy middle class standard of living, despite the fact that no vegetation exists and no one seems to work or produce anything. This is probably the most puzzling part of the film: if life is so bad, why does it seem so good?  Apparently, ignorance really is bliss.

O’Hare controls the town, although he doesn’t seem to be an elected official. (We can’t have a government figure as a bad guy in the new Disney universe!) Apparently O’Hare simply owns the town, as well as everyone and everything in it.  In this movie, private ownership is bad. Very bad. Even if you provide a comfortable standard of living.

When a pretty young girl named Audrey (Taylor Swift) yearns to see a real tree, a lovestruck young boy named Ted (Zac Efron) determines to find one for her.  That means going outside the town’s bubble to the desolate place where trees used to grow. There he meets the Once-ler (Ed Helms) who tells Ted the sad story of how capitalism, greed, and materialism led to environmental destruction.

What follows should be a textbook example of how the free market works to provide jobs, goods, and higher standards of living. Fifty years earlier, the Once-ler had an idea for a versatile invention: a “Thneed” made from the renewable leaves of the Truffula tree. At first no one is interested in Once-ler’s invention, but when they see one on the head of a stylish young beauty, everyone has to have one. This is Say’s Law in action: supply creates its own demand. Consider the fact that no one demanded  a handheld device that could store 5,000 songs until Apple invented the iPod.  Then everyone had to have one. Similarly, Once-ler’s Thneed creates its own demand. To keep up with production he enlists his family members and pays the Barbaloots to harvest the Truffula leaves, using marshmallows as money.

But in this bizarro world, the free market becomes a tool of destruction. The product Once-ler has invented is clearly an unnecessary accessory (in the eyes of the filmmakers), and as we all know from studying Chairman Mao, if it isn’t fundamentally functional, no one should have it. The “money” Once-ler pays the critters (marshmallows) become a seductive drug that saps their will and good sense. He doesn’t pay them for doing an honest day’s work; he bribes them to stay out of his way. Once-ler’s family members turn out to be vile, redneck imbeciles who treat everyone with contempt–including Once-ler. Impatient to reach the tree tops, Once-ler speeds up the harvesting process by cutting down the trees, cutting off his supply as well.

The film completely ignores the principle of property rights. The trees and the land on which they grow belong to the critters and the Lorax.  Without their permission, Once-ler has no right to take the tree silk, to build a factory on their land, or to cut down their trees. But in a film whose point is that everyone (and thus no one) owns the land, this would sidetrack the communal message.

The fact is that people take care of property that belongs to them, and they tend not to take care of property that belongs to someone else. When loggers were awarded grants to cut trees on national land, they chopped indiscriminate swathes through forest after forest. But when they were allowed to own the land, they became tree growers as well as tree cutters. In fact, most of the deforestation in the United States took place nearly 200 years ago. Since then, forest cover has increased steadily, partly because national forests are protected, but also because companies replant what they harvest.

Perhaps the most insidious scene of the movie is the lively, jivey, upbeat song, “How bad can I be?”  Dressed in a money-green suit, the Once-ler sings joyfully and mischievously, “How bad can I be? I’m just doing what comes naturally / How bad can I be? I’m just following my destiny / . . . All the customers are buying. . . .  And the money’s multiplying. . . .  And the PR people are lying. . . . And the lawyers are denying. . . . Who cares if a few trees are dying? How bad can I be? / A portion of proceeds go to charity.”  The song is bouncy and catchy and chillingly fun. The message is clear: humans are naturally bad, and their badness has to be governed. Even when they do something good, such as giving to charity, they must have a devious, ulterior motive.

Ironically, the film ends on what really does come naturally: operating the invisible hand of the free market. After telling Ted his story, the now repentant Once-ler assigns him the task of taking the final Truffula seed and planting it in the center of town where all will see it and want a tree of their own.  Again, if that isn’t Say’s Law in action, I don’t know what is: supply creates its own demand.

Seuss’s book ends here, with a gentle reminder to be responsible for your own little piece of the earth.  Disney keeps going, however. O’Hare and his henchmen follow Ted on a frolicking chase through town. Why must they stop the tree planting? Because trees will produce oxygen, and oxygen will clean up the air, and clean air will destroy O’Hare’s bottled air business. As always, the greedy capitalist destroys the planet for his own gain.

What has happened to a country–and a movie studio– that once praised the virtue of lemonade stands and paper routes? Hollywood—center of one of the nation’s largest capitalist businesses–has long been disdainful toward business and capitalism. But with the G-rated Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, even Hollywood has hit new lows. The Lorax is a pleasant, entertaining movie with a vile message. When I asked my 8-year-old grandson whether he liked it, he smiled brightly and nodded his head.  He loves Dr. Seuss! Then he added, “But it’s all propaganda!” A smart cookie, that grandson of mine. His parents have taught him well. But he’s just as attracted to fluff as those critters were attracted to marshmallows.

Since this is a movie about the bottom line, here is the bottom line from this movie: Money is bad. Homes, food, and entertainment are good. But where do homes, food, and entertainment come from if we don’t earn money? The government, of course.  And how do we get people to work and produce without money? Mandatory volunteerism, I guess. Hmmmm.  Hard work. No money. Food and shelter provided… Wasn’t that called communism in the last century? And slavery in the century before that?

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, directed by Chris Renaud. Universal Studios, 2012, 86 minutes.

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