I am mouse Judge Erich Asperschlager. I squeak for the cheese.
"I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees."
Contrary to what we tell our kids, adults aren't that smart. Just because we know more stuff doesn't mean we know what to do with it. We acquire factoids not to better ourselves or our world, but to bolster petty arguments. This is especially true in modern politics, where facts are malleable, used as ammunition to be lobbed at opponents. Information is changed to fit ideology, rather than the other way around. When Dr. Seuss wrote The Lorax in 1972, it was an early warning call. Forty years later, his environmental message feels more pressing, and prescient, than ever.
Facts of the Case
In The Lorax, Seuss warned young readers about the dangers of sacrificing natural resources at the altar of corporate greed. The hero of his tale is the title character, a bright-orange mustachioed "kind of a man" who argues on behalf of the wondrous Truffula trees, against the book's villain, a faceless entrepreneur called the Once-ler who can't see the forest for the dollar signs in his eyes. Armed with an axe and a dream, the Once-ler turns the Truffula's luscious tuft into something called a "Thneed." What's a Thneed? Why it's a thing "that all people need." When demand outstrips his one-man operation, the Once-ler calls his family for help. They build factories, roadways, and tract housing to support the Thneed empire, at the expense of the forest and its residents—the Swomee-Swans, brown Bar-ba-loots, and Humming Fish—who can no longer stand the pollution. The Lorax begs the Once-ler to change his ways before it's too late. He refuses. The last tree falls. The business dries up and everyone moves on, including the Lorax, who picks himself up and flies away—leaving the Once-ler behind as king of the wasteland he made.
Man, is it depressing.
Except that Seuss knows the key to selling a post-apocalyptic parable to grade schoolers: hope. It comes in the form of a boy who visits the Once-ler's shack to hear his story. At the end, the penitent Thneed-maker gives the boy two things—the very last Truffula seed, and the Lorax's final word: UNLESS. "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better." Not "don't worry, things will work out," or "someone else will fix it," but "roll up your sleeves and get to work." Even that message seems antiquated to modern audiences, who are more willing to complain about the injustices of the world than to lift a finger to help.
The same year Dr. Seuss wrote his pro-environment fable, it was made into an animated special for CBS. The Lorax may not be as famous as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but it gained traction in grade schools, where it remained a staple at least through my formative years. This past year, someone had the idea to remake The Lorax as a CGI feature-length film starring Zac Efron and Danny DeVito. Some kids may prefer this updated version, well-padded with new characters and subplots. Those of us who prefer Seuss's original still have this great TV version, which came out in a "deluxe edition" Blu-ray/DVD set to coincide with the 40th Anniversary of its CBS debut, and is getting a late summer push alongside the 2012 movie's home video release.
If the excellent How the Grinch Stole Christmas stands toe-to-toe with Charles Schultz' A Charlie Brown Christmas, then The Lorax is on par with It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown—classic, but with a few problems. It's not easy to stretch a 45-page picture book into a half hour TV special (let alone an 86-minute movie). The Lorax fills the gaps with songs and new dialogue. The musical numbers are bouncy fun, but not nearly as memorable or essential as the songs in The Grinch. The story additions focus mostly on the Once-ler's conflicted feelings about polluting the forest. The inner turmoil feels more like padding than character development. Even so, I'd rather have a 25-minute Lorax with 15 great minutes than nothing at all.
The Lorax is a tough sell on Blu-ray. The 1.37:1 1080p transfer sure looks great, with bright, even colors, a stable image, and nary a speck, fleck, or scratch in sight. The 1.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio mix lacks punch, but it's clean. It's not the best hi-def animated classic out there, but it's certainly the best this special has ever looked. On the other hand, it's less than thirty minutes long—not a great value proposition.
It helps that the package includes a DVD and Ultraviolet download code, as well as two bonus Seuss shorts: Pontoffel Pock & His Magic Piano and Butter Battle Book, both presented in standard definition. Unfortunately, whether because of the way they were made, or the way they've been transferred, these bonus episodes look lousy on Blu-ray. They are plagued with jagged lines and blocky text, looking more like streaming web video than something you'd expect in a proper home media release. Oddly enough, they look fine on the included DVD. The picture isn't as sharp, but in this case that's a good thing. The annoying video issues are even more annoying because it detracts from what are solid episodes.
Pontoffel Pock & His Magic Piano (24:42) was written by Dr. Seuss in 1980 especially for TV. Its title hero is a failed pickle packer who travels the world with the help of a magic piano courtesy of The Amalgamated Do-Gooding Fairies. Along the way, he gets in trouble with various local authorities and falls for an "eyeball dancer" named Neefa Feefa.
The 1984 book Butter Battle Book (23:42) was animated for TV in 1989 by none other than Ralph Bakshi. Seuss is at his most political in this anti-war fable, about the Yooks and Zooks, warring neighbors identical except that one butters their bread on the bottom while the other butters the top. When a border guard is attacked, the two sides start an arms race, going from slingshots to guns to atomic capsules called "Big-Boy Boomaroos." The story ends on an chilling cliffhanger, with the Yooks and Zooks on the brink of mutually assured destruction. It may be a cartoon for youngsters, but this is definitely not kids' stuff.
The set comes with one new bonus featurette. "The Trees! The Trees! The Voice of the Trees!" (10:24) takes the Lorax's message into the real world, with information from scientists and educators about trees and why they need to be planted and protected.
I'm not sure what seems sillier: a fluffy ecological soothsayer upbraiding a faceless fictional businessman, or an educated populace who refers to the catastrophic gradual warming of the earth as "climate change." Your kids might beg for the newer, slicker version of The Lorax. Resist. Buy them the original 1972 version instead. You'll only get 25 minutes of silence instead of an hour and a half, but at times like this we all need to make sacrifices.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Bonus Shorts
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