Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax


 

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax

Introducing the Lorax.

(2012) Animated Feature (Universal) Starring the voices of Zac Efron, Ed Helms, Danny DeVito, Taylor Swift, Rob Riggle, Betty White, Jenny Slate, Nasim Perdad, Stephen Tobolowsky, Elmarie Wendel, Danny Cooksey, Laraine Newman. Directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda

 

The world we live in is the only one we have. It is beautiful and full of life, a virtual paradise without any help from us. However, that world is also terribly fragile and if we succumb to greed and short-sightedness, we run the risk of losing it.

Thneedville upon first glance seems to be a great place to live. Everything is plastic, there are no living things anywhere save the people. Air is bottled for the most part; the mayor O’Hare (Riggle) has the air concession.

Ted (Efron) lives in this town and he doesn’t much care one way or the other. His attention is on Audrey (Swift) who he very much would like to get to know better. He contrives ways to get her attention – like crashing a radio-controlled plane into her yard. Once there, he sees that she’s painted some odd-looking things on the back of her house. She calls them “trees” and tells him that they used to be plentiful around there but nobody has seen one in years. She sighs and tells her that her fondest wish is to see a real live one – and that she would just about marry the man on the spot who could show her one.

That’s all the information that Ted needs. But where does one find a living tree in a place where there aren’t any? Ted’s granny (White) fortunately has the answer, one hastily whispered – the Once-Ler (Helms), who lies outside of town. Outside of town? Gulp! Nobody ever goes outside of town. But Ted is determined and so he goes.

The trip is perilous but at last he finds the Once-Ler’s lonely home in the wilderness of tree stumps and sunless barren desolation. The Once-Ler isn’t particularly interested in helping Ted out – he really wants to be left alone but at last he gives in and agrees to give Ted a tree – but first he must hear the story of how the trees went away.

You see, the Once-Ler is the one who is responsible for the disappearance of the trees. He had arrived in the area as an ambitious young man, looking to make his mark on the world with his own invention – the Thneed. However he needs raw materials to make his Thneeds and this place is perfect. It is filled with woodland creatures (mostly little bears and the occasional Sneetch) and smiling, singing fish – but most importantly, thousands upon thousands of beautiful truffula trees whose tut-like branches are softer than summer rain.

After chopping down a truffula tree to make his first Thneed, the Once-Ler is visited by the Lorax (DeVito), a mystical and slightly annoying (as the Once-Ler describes him) creature who is the advocate of the forest. He speaks for the trees, presumably since the trees have no mouths. And the Lorax warns of dire consequences if the Once-Ler continues on his path of destruction.

At first, the Once-Ler is spectacularly unsuccessful at selling his Thneed but pure happenstance demonstrates how useful the item is and suddenly everyone wants one. The Once-Ler promises the Lorax that he will use sustainable means of harvesting the truffula trees and the Lorax seems satisfied with that. The Once-Ler brings his family into the peaceful valley to help him ramp up his manufacturing operation. Instead, they convince him to clear-cut the forest to harvest more efficiently which he finally gives in to. The results are that the Once-Ler completely depletes the forest, he runs out of materials to make his Thneeds and his family deserts him. The Lorax takes the animals and goes, leaving behind a rock with the word “Unless” carved into it.

Can Ted stand up to the powers-that-be of Thneedville and bring back the trees and animals? Or are the inhabitants of Thneedville doomed to their plastic existence?

The Lorax has come under a lot of fire on both sides of the political fence. Conservatives decry its message which has been described as anti-capitalist and the indoctrination of children into super-liberal causes. Liberals have pointed out the hypocrisy of a film with a green message and over 70 product placements in the movie. The former is a crock; the message here is of acting responsibly and thinking globally rather than of short-term profit. There is nothing anti-capitalist about promoting responsibility. Those who think so have guilty consciences in my book.

The latter however is definitely an issue. It sends conflicting messages, to support environmental causes on the one hand and to embrace consumerism on the other. Now, I understand the economic realities of film making – these product placement help pay the bills – but couldn’t there have been other ways to get the sponsorship money?

The movie is otherwise fun and adheres to the spirit of Dr. Seuss. There are a trio of singing fish who act much as a Greek chorus, even if they aren’t always singing lyrics. They are, as the minions are in Despicable Me (whose animation studio produced the movie but the actual animation was done by the French Mac Guff Studios which Illumination recently purchased). They are sure to be big hits with both kids and adults alike.

DeVito makes an awesome Lorax, a little bit befuddled but possessed of great wisdom and love for the trees. He stands out most among the other voice actors who do their jobs pretty well, but are fairly innocuous compared to DeVito whose voice stands out anyway. We get the sense of who the Lorax is and the great pain he feels when the Once-Ler makes his wrong turn.

The animation itself is superb, keeping the distinctive Seussian style throughout. There are few straight lines (if any) in the movie and the bright colors will keep the littlest tykes happy, not to mention the cute little bears and the Rube Goldberg-like contraptions in Thneedville.

There are those who complained about the message being preachy but given the state of our environment and climate, this is a message that needs to be preached because apparently the grown-ups haven’t gotten it yet. Perhaps our kids will – and perhaps it won’t be too late when they get a chance to do something about it.

REASONS TO GO: Clever and irreverent, holding close to the style of Dr. Seuss. Inspired vocal casting. A good message for kids.

REASONS TO STAY: Excessive product placement subverts admirable message. Lags a bit in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a couple of mildly bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ted and Audrey are named after Dr. Seuss (real name Theodore Geisel) and his wife Audrey. This is also the first movie to feature Universal’s spiffy new 100th Anniversary logo and was released on what would have been the 108th birthday of Dr. Seuss.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100. The reviews are mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flushed Away

THEME PARK LOVERS: There is a scene where the Once-Ler’s bed is put in a river and floats off and winds up running some rapids – looks like Universal’s got a new Seuss Landing attraction in mind for Islands of Adventure…

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT:Turning Green

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Shia LaBeouf tells Michael Douglas that Indiana Jones was a better adventure hero than Jack Colton.

(20th Century Fox) Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Susan Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Frank Langella, Austin Pendleton, John Bedford Lloyd, Vanessa Ferlito, John Buffalo Mailer, Sylvia Miles, Charlie Sheen, Ron Insana.  Directed by Oliver Stone

Filmmaker Oliver Stone has long had the reputation as a cinematic gadfly. Throughout the 1980s his movies took run after run against the establishment; movies like JFK, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July all of which were Oscar bait in their time. However, many consider his 1987 film Wall Street to be his magnum opus. Michael Douglas would win an Oscar as the Machiavellian Gordon Gekko, a Wall Street financier whose mantra “Greed is Good” would become a catchphrase and, ironically enough, a spur for many of today’s brokers to enter the business. Still, that was 23 years ago; has Stone mellowed with age?

Some say yes. The movie opens with Gekko (Douglas, reprising the role from the original) being released from prison after doing eight years for insider trading. He leaves the facility with a mobile phone the size of a loaf of bread and a gold watch. There is, however, nobody to meet him; even the rapper/thug has a limo awaiting him.

Seven years later, his daughter Winnie (Mulligan) still hasn’t spoken to him in more than a decade. She blames him for the overdose death of her brother. She has a different life now anyway; she runs what is self-described as a “lefty website” and she’s living with Jake Moore (LaBeouf), who works as an investment banker for the established firm of Keller Zabel (said to be a fictional version of Bear Stearns) as an alternative energy specialist. Even though he’s essentially part of the system she despises, he’s still idealistic enough to give her reason to overlook it.

Their life is far from ideal, however. Keller Zabel is in trouble, the victim of rumors of insolvency based on bad debt (rumors which turn out to be partially true). Senior partner Louis Zabel (Langella), who is also Jake’s mentor, goes to the Federal Reserve, hat in hand, but is turned down, mainly due to the poisonous words of Bretton James (Brolin), the CEO of Churchill Schwartz (the fictional counterpart of Goldman Sachs) who had an axe to grind with Zabel.

When Keller Zabel fails, Jake decides to take in a lecture by Gekko who is promoting his book “Is Greed Good?” that, among other things, predicts the economic meltdown that would take place later that year (the movie is set in 2008). He manages to get Gekko’s ear by telling him that he’s getting ready to marry his daughter, which he is. Gekko agrees to talk to him.

Gekko agrees to get some information about who initiated the rumors about Keller Zabel in exchange for Jake helping to reunite him with his daughter. Jake arranges dinner with the three of them but Winnie walks out, unable to be in the same room with the man whom she blames for destroying her family. Jake stays in contact with her dad behind her back, however; Gekko responds by telling Jake that it was Bretton James behind the rumors that sunk Keller Zabel. Jake decides to initiate some rumors of his own. James is in turn impressed by the passion and smarts of young Jake and hires him. This lasts only as long as it takes for Jake to find out he’s being used.

Things really begin to fall apart then. Just as Winnie is beginning to move towards reconciliation with her father, Gekko reverts to his true colors and the revelation that Jake has been in contact with him behind her back threatens to submarine the relationship. Can someone like Gordon Gekko find redemption in this world, and more to the point, does he deserve it?

I asked earlier if Oliver Stone had mellowed with age, and I tend to agree with some of those who think that he has. Stone’s best works, including the original Wall Street, all carry a degree of anger to them. They are strident, opinionated and abrasive in some ways. He carries the courage of his convictions whether you agree with them or not, and in all honesty there is little ambiguity about his cinematic work.

That’s not as true here. Gekko at one point says, “I was small time compared to these crooks” referring to the Lords of Wall Street circa 2008, but he is in many ways as corrupting an influence as ever, although he isn’t even the villain of this piece – Bretton James is. While Brolin is a great actor in his own right and he does a magnificent job as the unrepentantly corrupt and greedy James, the movie could have used less of him and more of Michael Douglas.

Douglas, as I mentioned earlier, won an Oscar for the first Wall Street and it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he could win another for the same role 23 years on, although I would probably characterize it as more of a supporting role. Gekko is sleek, seductive and completely amoral; he is super-competitive and will pay any price in order to win on his own terms. It’s a fascinating role as much of the movie the lion has no teeth or claws, only to reveal that he had them all along about two thirds of the way through. Douglas is the reason to see this movie, first and foremost.

He has some company, however. Langella, who has been delivering terrific performances every time out of late, does so again here. His role is small but crucial, and he imbues it with dignity and honesty. Louis Zabel is a man who finds that his business has changed into something unrecognizable and something he doesn’t much like. He’s lost in this world that he helped shape, and the irony isn’t lost on him. Sarandon also has a brief role as Jake’s real estate selling mom, who is constantly in need of funds to keep her house of cards from collapsing.

This might have gotten a better rating, but unfortunately the movie is torpedoed by its ending, which I found literally preposterous. The characters turn completely on their own internal logic and act completely out of character. It’s about as jarring as ordering a pizza delivery and receiving liver and onions instead, especially if you hate liver and onions.

Having been employed by a financial institution my own self, I can tell you that the world created here is pretty much accurate; the hypocrisy and arrogance truly exists particularly the closer to the executive suite that you get. Of course, that’s pretty much true for any industry these days; it’s just that the financial industry has been in the spotlight more because of the sub-prime shenanigans.

There are a number of documentaries out there that examine the financial meltdown and its causes that are more likely to give you insight into just what happened. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps isn’t really a good substitute for them, since it really relegates much of the reasons behind the collapse to the periphery of the film, preferring to concentrate on the characters of Jake, Winnie and Bretton and to a lesser extent, Gordon Gekko. It does make for fine entertainment, but I suspect it will seem a bit dated 23 years after the fact and doesn’t have the advantage of prescience that the original Wall Street had. It’s more a rehash of current events, and it may be fair to say that you could have gotten the same insights by watching MSNBC.

REASONS TO GO: Langella, Douglas and Brolin do some pretty impressive work. The character of Gordon Gekko is as relevant today as he was back in 1987.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is absolutely preposterous. Some of the direction is a bit self-indulgent.  

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be a little rough and some of the concepts are on the confusing side, but the average teenager should be able to follow it and maybe even appreciate it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A scene in which Donald Trump made a cameo appearance as himself was left on the cutting room floor.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the New York City vistas look far more majestic on the big screen, the movie is nonetheless perfectly adequate when seen at home.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Leaves of Grass

A Christmas Carol (1938)


A Christmas Carol (1938)

Reginald Owen as the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge.

(MGM) Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, Terry Kilburn, Barry Mackay, Lynne Carver, Leo G. Carroll, Lionel Braham, Ann Rutherford, D’Arcy Corrigan, Ronald Sinclair. Directed by Edwin L. Marin

“God bless us, every one.” It’s a line that has become part of popular culture and has been that way for nearly two centuries now. It was common enough when Charles Dickens wrote it back in 1843 but these days it refers to the classic tale.

You know the details. Ebeneezer Scrooge (Owen) is a penurious money-lender whose grasping, greedy ways and hateful, aggressive attitude have made him the terror of London. He is visited on Christmas Eve by his jovial nephew Fred (Mackay) who invites him to dinner, which he does every year. As he does every year, Scrooge declines, expressing his disapproval to Fred’s betrothal to Bess (Carver), a poor woman who Fred nonetheless loves with all his heart.

Receiving his message better is Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart), his long-suffering clerk who suffers Scrooge’s rages stoically and tolerates his insults meekly. When he asks for Christmas Day off, Scrooge begrudgingly gives it, lambasting his employee to be at work all the earlier the next day. He reluctantly pays Cratchit his pitiful wages and the two depart. The fun-loving Cratchit has his top hat knocked off by a snowball thrown by some young boys which prompts an impromptu snowball fight. Eager to join in the fun, Cratchit lofts a snowball and knocks the hat off of…his boss. The hat unfortunately is crushed under the wheel of a coach. Scrooge sacks him on the spot and to add insult to injury, demands a shilling to compensate for the hat.

Cratchit walks away morosely but the sight of a swinging goose neck on the back of a shopper soon restores his good humor. He bustles from shop to shop, ordering the best meal he can afford. When he gets home, his good-hearted wife (Kathleen Lockhart, Gene’s real-life wife – and for those who love trivia, they were the parents of actress June Lockhart who appears in an uncredited role as Belinda Cratchit, one of their young children) and his beloved children are waiting. He loves them all – but perhaps the crippled Tiny Tim (Kilburn) the most.

The miserly Scrooge in the meantime arrives at his home, empty and silent as the grave. He goes inside to light a candle and is startled to see a face appear on his door knocker. It is the face of Marley (Carroll), his partner who passed away seven years previously that very night. He slams the door and heads up to his bedsit to warm himself by a meager fire. He hears a loud booming noise like a great door had been opened, then the unmistakable sound of chains being dragged across the floor and in walks Marley, bound and fettered.

At first Scrooge doesn’t believe in Marley and dismisses him as the results of indigestion. He summons the local bobbies to remove the intruder but they arrive to find the room empty. Angrily, Scrooge sends them on their way but is startled to see Marley still there. Now convinced of Marley’s validity, he listens to his message. Marley warns Scrooge that he will suffer a fate as sad as his own unless he changes and there was only one chance of that – but he would need to be visited by three spirits in order to do that – the Ghost of Christmas Past (Rutherford), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Braham) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Corrigan). We all know what happens after that.

This version has been shown on television many, many times over the years and is something of a Christmas tradition for many. Despite the technical limitations of the era (the special effects are primitive by our standards and some of the sequences of the spirits flying over London look a bit silly today) the acting is as good as you’ll find in any of the many filmed versions of the story. Particularly good is Gene Lockhart as Cratchit and even if he looked a bit well-fed to be impoverished (although in truth most onscreen Cratchits have been on the chubby side) he manages to capture the unshakable faith and unstoppable cheerfulness that make up the core of the character. Mackay does Fred very well indeed, and is a bit less callow than most of the other actors who have played the role; in my book it’s a little bit closer to the way Dickens wrote him.

Kilburn in my estimation set the standard for all those who tackled the role of Tiny Tim thereafter. His look, his gentleness and his ability to project cheer and joy has essentially become the way we mostly characterize the role. In fact, his recitation of the line I quoted at the beginning of the review is most often seen when the line is needed in advertising or in features.

The drawback here is that the studio wanted this to be an uplifting family film, so nearly every unpleasant element has been eliminated, including the character of Scrooge’s fiancée and the death in childbirth of Fan, his sister. If it wasn’t for that, the movie would have gotten a higher rating as so many familiar elements are missing that it feels like the movie is truncated.

This is one of the most classic of Christmas stories and many of our current holiday traditions can trace its roots to the original Dickens novel. It has been made and remade literally dozens of times on television, in animated form and as live action movies for television and the movies including the latest version starring Jim Carey that was previously reviewed here. While the 1951 version is probably the best known – and the best – of all of the many versions, this one set the standard that almost all of them have derived from at least partially and it is certainly worth seeing for that reason alone. Turner Classic Movies shows it regularly here in the States, but it is easily available everywhere. Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us, every one.

WHY RENT THIS: Gene Lockhart and Barry Mackay are memorable in supporting roles, and Terry Kilburn was one of the best Tiny Tims ever. Veteran character actor Reginald Owen delivers his most memorable performance as Scrooge.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The filmmakers speed through the material, skipping over entire sections of the story to finish at an astonishing 69 minutes. Some of the material is sorely missed. The special effects are primitive and at times painful to watch by modern standards.

FAMILY VALUES: As with most movies from the era, it is no problem for modern family audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first version of the classic Dickens tale to be made as a talkie and was meant to star Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge, but Barrymore was badly injured in a fall on another movie set and was unable to perform. He personally recommended Owen to replace him in the role.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several short features, Judy Garland singing “Silent Night” in a film that was reportedly only played at an MGM Christmas party and an animated short called “Peace on Earth” that, ironically, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, the only filmed entertainment to be honored thus.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Avatar