Thursday, April 5, 2012

Lorax Ipsum

There was a predictable (and largely appropriate) amount of ire and outrage when the big advertising push for this year’s Lorax movie got underway. Or, more specifically, when the cross-promotional ad campaigns got underway, including the now-semi-infamous branding of a Mazda SUV as “Lorax Approved!” You have to admit the gall of it is pretty monumental; it’s one thing to hype up biodegradable disposable diapers as having the Lorax’s endorsement, but an SUV? I mean, come ON, people.

We are not amused.
Of course all of this brouhaha was stirred up before the movie ever came out, because that’s the way Hollywood advertising and synergy and stuff works, so the vast majority of the people raising hue and/or cry hadn’t seen the flick. I took the little guy to see it over the weekend, and I can now say definitively that there’s a lot of revisionism going on in the movie, a lot of which is … provocative. I’ve meditated before on the fact that the book could not possibly be more of a call to action considering that the text is written to address the reader in second-person voice and the movie fundamentally changes that dynamic by giving the little boy a name (Ted, a ha, I see what they did there) and a lot more specific backstory and motivation, but also by extending the narrative well beyond the point where the little boy receives the last truffula seed to encompass germinating and planting said seed, convincing his entire town that trees really are important, and the beginnings of multiple sapling truffulas and (non-grickle-)grass regrowing out in the former-wasteland-that-was-formerly-to-that-a-forest, AND … hold onto your literary-preservation monocles … the return of the Lorax and his reconciliation with the Once-Ler. I KNOW. The ambiguous ending of the book is supposed to leave a reader feeling like they really need to go out and protect some green space, whereas the happy goodtimes ending of the movie seems to want nothing more than to have everyone leave the theater on a vibe of “Everything’s fine, glad that all worked out ok!” Which is a slight undercutting of the original intent.

Which is not to say that it was a bad movie or attending it was a miserable experience or anything. Some of the changes and enhancements could arguably be called positive. In the book the wasteland around the Once-Ler’s place looks a little dark and weird, whereas in the movie it’s positively terrifying. And the Once-Ler gets a lot more depth and complex, conflicted motivations in the movie, and comes across as sympathetic if flawed instead of just a short-sighted jerk to be pitied. In the book his foremost intention all along was to make as much money as possible as fast as possible with no regard for the consequences, while completely ignoring the Lorax’s warnings and concerns; in the movie he really doesn’t want to cause harm and does try at first to accommodate the Lorax, only to end up on a slippery slope of compromise and temptation. And that’s actually a good way of sidestepping the possibility that some impressionable young mind might think the takeaway of The Lorax is supposed to be “Don’t be a Once-Ler” which is a simple enough dictum because the Once-Ler is such an obvious a straw man. And maybe, sorta, kinda that justifies the uplifting redemption of the movie version of the Once-Ler. Opinions no doubt will vary.

I will give the movie full (possibly even extra) credit for one amusing bit of business, though, to tie back into the synergy theme. There’s a trippy musical montage that illustrates the Once-Ler’s catastrophic descent into allowing himself to be ruled by corporate greed, and it includes a lot of choice lyrics about hypocrisy and rationalization and so on. And there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag near the end of the song where the Once-Ler is ticking off all the terrible results of his operation (and how he doesn’t care much about them), one of which is “and the PR department is LYING.” The imagery accompanying that lyric has a disembodied set of hands shoving a Thneed into the Lorax’s hands, and another set of hands snapping a photo with a bright flash, which cuts to a huge billboard utilizing that image emblazoned with the words … “Lorax Approved!”

I can’t prove it, of course, but I really like to think that whoever managed to work that throwaway joke into the movie did so in order to make a point. Of course it’s ridiculous to try to associate the Lorax with SUVs, or to use the anti-consumerist Lorax as any kind of commercial mascot at all. But it is going to happen because that’s the way of the world. It’s just a self-serving lie, the same way that the vast majority of advertising is all self-serving lies. So calm down and don’t confuse it with the Lorax selling out, because it is literally a case of the advertisers falsely putting words in the little fella’s mouth. And not to get all meta, but a fictional character is even easier to manipulate and appropriate than a real flesh-and-blood spokesperson. But in the end, it’s all manipulation of perception. And you can choose to think about how that manipulated message came together, and you can choose to disbelieve it.

All of which, if it’s really there at all, is aimed at me and not the little guy and his age-cohort, of course. He liked the movie, for what it’s worth, particularly the ending, because it was happy, but also the big fat comic relief bar-ba-loot, too. He actually got a little freaked out by the action-blockbuster-style climax in which the villain (the new bad guy who filled the void left when the Once-Ler went into seclusion) and his goons chased Ted through the city trying to steal the last truffula seed, which to be fair was pretty intense with lots of racing around and shouting and implied danger, but I let him climb into my lap and we made it to the payoff. It remains to be seen if he’ll ever ask if we can get the movie on DVD at home, when we already have the 70’s cartoon. I tend to think that despite the flash and padding of the new version and the magic experience of seeing it bigger than life in the theater, he’ll still prefer the old adaptation that’s more faithful to the book. Or, again, maybe that’s just me.

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