The Kind of Tale Everybody Thneeds?Ecocriticism, Class, and the Filmic Lorax
The 2012 film Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax makes explicit its desire to not just adapt but to “bigger” Seuss’s eco-fable. This narrative expansion advocates community-based action and promotes a more ecocentric consciousness while simultaneously and retrogressively particularizing the source of environmental destruction presented by the book. By narratively and visually coding the environmental threat as working class and individualized, this movie channels eco-activism away from the powerful. Further, moving outward to the film’s larger cultural context, the movie’s marketing tie-ins facilitate the unraveling of the very group-based activism that the narrative endorses, re-individualizing environmental change as merely “Lorax-approved” consumption-as-usual.
The 2012 Universal Pictures/Illumination Entertainment film Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, an adaptation and expansion of the environmental children’s classic, represents a vexed intersection between sociocultural mandates and a desire for future change. The film relates in parallel the Once-ler’s tale of greedy Truffula tree overuse and the consequences for the valley, striving to maintain both Seuss’s whimsy and his frame tale: a young boy seeks out the Once-ler in hopes of discovering the Lorax’s identity and the reason he was “lifted and taken somewhere” (Seuss, Lorax n. pag.). At the same time, the adaptation also elaborates upon the original text, both productively and reductively. On the one hand, the film’s narrative promisingly builds upon the solution or call to action advocated by the book—that the reader “Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.” On the other hand, the narrative particularizes certain stereotypes as the source of the environmental threat (Seuss had left this unspecified), while spawning a number of commercial product tie-ins that rely on a model of ecological change as consumption based and individualized.
In this article, I argue that, though the film’s narrative takes a progressive stance by questioning what Lance Newman describes as “an all too familiar American ideology of unfettered individual freedom” (186), calling instead for community action and the development of a societywide ecocentric consciousness, it does so in a way that retrogressively codes the target of that group action as greedy working-class up-and-comers. In this way, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax works to maintain the status quo, directing its validation of environmentally-minded interventions into avenues that do not, ultimately, threaten the power and resources of the privileged. Beyond the vexed ideological messages of the narrative, the marketing and tie-in products generated for this film function to undermine the group-based activism it ostensibly promotes, serving instead to re-individualize environmental change as “Lorax-approved” consumption. [End Page 39] This film trades on Seuss’s progressive credentials, yet its synthesis of ecocentric activist messages, reductive social stereotypes, and the suggestion that change occurs through consumption ultimately functions to undo the narrative’s promotion of ecologically driven change.
“We Open in Thneedville”: The Story
Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax opens in the simulacra-city of Thneedville, to the joyous musical praise of the happy Thneedvillers. The audience, however, soon realizes that what appears to be a familiar suburban landscape is, in fact, composed of merrily manufactured replicas. Bushes and flowers inflate as the camera passes, reemphasizing the Lorax’s opening words: “We open in Thneedville, a city, they say, / That was plastic and fake, and they liked it that way. / A Town Without Nature. Not one living tree. / So what happened to them? / Cue the music! / Let’s see” (Paul and Daurio 1). Despite the peppy paeans, viewers soon learn that Thneedville’s air quality is so terrible that its citizens must buy fresh air from “zillionaire” Aloysius O’Hare (6). When Ted, the film’s protagonist, ventures outside to find the Once-ler—hoping to procure a tree for Audrey, Ted’s Truffula-loving crush—Thneedville’s brightly colored plastic perfection gives way to the blue-grey, stump-ridden truth. The Once-ler describes how his search for the perfect material from which to knit his Thneed (“a fine thing that all people need!” ) led him to the valley, a paradise then filled with Brown Bar-ba-loots, Swomee-Swans, Humming-Fish, and Truffula trees. The entrepreneurial Once-ler moved in and cut down a tree for its super-soft tufts, an action that summoned the Lorax, guardian of the forest, who temporarily convinced the Once-ler not to fell any more trees. However, the Thneed’s sudden popularity, coupled with his family’s urgings, persuaded the Once-ler to start “biggering” his operation (72). Despite the Lorax’s continuous urgings to desist, the Once-ler industrialized his company, wreaking havoc on the valley’s ecosystem. When the last tree fell and his family abandoned him to the now desolate valley, the Once-ler was left alone and remorseful. After relating his tale, the Once-ler entrusts Ted with the last Truffula seed, urging the boy to plant it in the town square so people can grow to care about trees again. O’Hare, however, has other ideas; after all, he makes money selling clean air, which trees make for free. Ted, his Grammy, mother, and Audrey seek to convince the Thneedvillers that they need trees. Knocking down part of the wall surrounding the city, Ted reveals the desolation of the treeless landscape. In the end, the community decides to plant the seed, and the valley begins the slow work of regeneration.
While the Once-ler’s tale and warning constitute the majority of both book and film, the latter expands this story, adding specificity to the Once-ler’s origins and introducing O’Hare, Audrey, and the Thneedvillers. The movie, in fact, makes that expansion explicit, demanding in its opening moments that viewers attend to the added material. In his introductory speech, the Lorax urges: [End Page 40] “Regarding the story that you’re ’bout to see— / It actually happened—just take it from me. / But there’s more to this story than what’s on the page, / So please pay attention while I set the stage” (Paul and Daurio 1; emphasis mine). Significantly, this introduction not only urges the audience to note the added material, but also privileges the film’s textual authority, implying that this version contains information Seuss “missed.” How, then, do these additions function, and what do they add to the message of Seuss’s eco-fable?
Growing More Than Grickle-Grass: Expanding the Solution
The film version of The Lorax elaborates on its source’s environmental impulses, expanding on Seuss’s story in ways that seem designed to make his message more apt to have its desired impact. Lisa Lebduska notes that Seuss’s book “begins by standing the culture of abundance on its head through an inversion of nature-as-spectacle. Rejecting a traditional Edenic panorama, the tale opens on a wasteland” (173). While Seuss’s book, in this and other ways, encourages readers to interrogate consumption, to ask “what constitutes need” (Lebduska 174), the movie works to take such questioning of consumption and its effects on the environment a step farther, opening on a seeming Arcadia that is almost immediately thereafter shown to be fake, a plastic Eden constructed by people who have devalued and destroyed their true “paradise.” The filmmakers employ devices such as humor and self-reference to promote an ecocentric consciousness, to resist anthropocentrism, and to emphasize the need for community-driven change.
Much of this movie’s eco-activist strength stems from its efforts to be what Deidre Pike terms a “dialogic enviro-toon” (13). Pike suggests that while guilt-fueled, apocalyptic environmental cartoons tend to shut down dialogue and discourage action, dialogic enviro-toons promote conversation, using comedy to create “a safe zone for exploration of environmental facts, ideas, images, and perspectives. These animations also complicate prefabricated talking points and, as a result, create space in which to hold important conversations” (13). The combination of humor and the presentation of multiple perspectives, Pike argues, enables these cartoons to promote discourse and inspire action. Rather than shutting down viewers’ belief in their ability to effect change, making them feel hopeless or manipulated, these cartoons—including, I would argue, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax—seek to spark thought and hope, encouraging engagement with and discussion of complex issues.
By playing up the Seussian whimsy of the Bar-ba-loots and Humming-Fish and adding humorous critique through satirical musical numbers and the voicing talents of seasoned actors and comedians, the Lorax movie uses the strengths of a humorous, dialogic enviro-toon in an effort to promote eco-discussion and encourage action. The film often creates meaning through the tongue-in-cheek pairing/synthesis of song lyrics and visuals, mocking the operations of capitalism in contemporary American society. For example, in [End Page 41] the song “How Bad Can I Be?” the greed-driven Once-ler wonders how wrong it could possibly be to benefit financially at the cost of a few trees, singing: “All the customers are buying! / . . . And the money’s multiplying! / . . . And the PR people are lying! / . . . Who cares if a few trees are dying?” (Paul and Daurio 74–75). While he sings, the audience sees, at one point, a Thneed dropped into the arms of a bemused Lorax, who is immediately photographed for a billboard proclaiming the Thneed “Lorax Approved.” A witty indictment of corporate greed, manipulative media practices, and the shady doings of many corporate lawyers, this song pointedly mocks the machinations of capitalism and the cultural assertion that the accumulation of wealth and status ought to be our ultimate goal. For example, the Once-ler, now garbed in an opulent emerald suit, poses before the paparazzi as he bestows a coin upon a needy man, who then turns to the viewers and pulls down a fake beard, revealing himself to be the Once-ler’s Uncle Ubb. As this action plays out, the Once-ler sings: “How bad can I be? A portion of proceeds go [sic] to charity!” (Paul and Daurio 74).
In addition to such satiric content, the medium of animation itself may encourage audience engagement with the film and promote positive dialogue between and among viewers and filmmakers. Pike discusses Marshall McLuhan’s concepts of “hot (high-resolution) and cool (low-resolution)” media, arguing that while a high-resolution/hot medium “extends its audiences’ senses in one direction so richly and in such detail that it leaves them passive, willing to accept the constructed reality,” a low-resolution/cool medium—such as animation—“through its bare and sketchy representation of details, offers an audience many points of engagement with the text and thus a chance to participate in the meaning-making process” (16). Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax is computer animated, providing a deeply detailed depiction of its world and the creatures who populate it (down to the last freckle), and, as such, is somewhat less “sketchy” than films such as the Australian FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992) or even Disney’s The Lion King (1994). However, I would argue that it is still far “cooler” than, say, James Cameron’s photorealistic spectacle Avatar (2009), due in large part to its Seussian context. Familiar with the fantastic creations of Seuss, adult and child viewers alike receive the world of the Lorax film as a construction of the imagination rather than as a representation of something “real.” Though the depiction of that world is a decidedly high-resolution one, its well-known status as a creation—a fact emphasized by its marketing as not just “The Lorax,” but “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” (emphasis mine)—encourages the viewer to consider the film to be the construct of an artistic mind.
Writing long before Pike, McLuhan similarly upholds the dialogic value of play over preaching when discussing or addressing serious matters: “The spectacle of brutality used as deterrent can brutalize. . . . with regard to the [atomic] bomb and retaliation as deterrent, it is obvious that numbness is the result of any prolonged terror. . . . The price of eternal vigilance is indifference” (48). Thus it is play, such as the kind embraced by Seuss and the Lorax filmmakers, “that cools off the hot situations of actual life by miming them” [End Page 42] (McLuhan 48). Such play, I would suggest, is a beneficial change from some of the “hotter” eco-apocalyptic rhetoric present in other children’s eco-films such as FernGully or even, at times, Warner Bros.’ Happy Feet (2006). A strategy of play, often present in postmodern works, is likewise embraced here in the filmic Lorax’s tendency, shared with many other children’s animated films, to include a variety of popular-culture references primarily for parents’ benefit. These references, such as the Humming-Fish’s rendition of the Mission Impossible theme, likewise remind adult viewers that they are watching a constructed product, and, perhaps, emphasize the reflexivity of satire rather than allow the audience to lose itself in the world of the movie. It is worth noting, however, that despite these nods to the adults in the audience, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax is more clearly a children’s movie than are the Disney/Pixar productions Toy Story 3 (2010) or Monsters University (2013), to name two animations popular also among adults. Though those films may appeal to young audiences in plot, their intense attention to and engagement with “adult” life experiences, such as starting college, implies a target audience comprising individuals who were children when the franchises started, but who are children no longer. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, in contrast, features a young protagonist, a number of silly animals, and an intimation that the environment’s future depends on the actions and values of the next generation, all of which suggests that children are in fact its target audience.
The film also promotes an ecological consciousness, acting as what Paula Willoquet-Maricondi terms a work of “ecocinema,” rather than as a “mainstream ‘environmentalist’ fiction” film (Preface xi). Willoquet-Maricondi describes ecocinema as “striv[ing] to have a social, political, and material impact, and to be a tool for activism,” while environmentalist films instead “put a topical subject in the service of entertainment. . . . the environmental themes in these films function primarily as backdrops to plot development, not as a call to action” (xi). That is, both the textual and the filmic Lorax try to inspire environmental action in their audiences, similarly ending with the activist call of the often quoted “UNLESS” passage: “UNLESS someone like you / cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better. / It’s not” (Seuss, Lorax n. pag.; Paul and Daurio 103).
One of the perspectives significantly advanced by many ecocinematic texts, Willoquet-Maricondi suggests, is the need to question a blind adherence to an anthropocentric ideology that values human life above all else, ostensibly putting human progress and gain first but actually contributing to social and environmental injustice and destruction. Ecocinematic works promote “A shift in paradigm from an unquestioned anthropocentric perspective to an ecocentric one. . . . Our very understanding of what constitutes ‘development’ and ‘progress’ needs to undergo scrutiny and debate” (“Introduction” 5). Both the film and the book versions of The Lorax reflect this eco- or biocentric consciousness by visually depicting the devastating effects that industrialization has on the valley’s landscape and biotic community. As the Once-ler “biggers” [End Page 43] his business, the air in the valley fills with “smogulous smoke,” and the water is polluted with “Gluppity-Glupp” and “Schloppity-Schlopp” (Seuss, Lorax n. pag.).1 This destruction of the valley’s ecosystem in turn affects the indigenous wildlife—in both the book and the movie, the Lorax must send the valley’s creatures away, in hopes that they can find a safer habitat elsewhere—and the audience for both texts clearly sees the saddening effects of pollution on these animals. In the film, the viewer notes the Humming-Fish covered in an oily black sludge, paralleling Seuss’s illustrations of bedraggled Bar-ba-loots gripping growling stomachs in distress.
Many environmental children’s texts promote audience concern for the creatures harmed by human greed and/or brutality by anthropomorphizing those beings, inspiring sympathy by portraying suffering animals as somewhat furrier versions of the viewer and her or his friends and family. Anthropomorphism, as Lynne Dickson Bruckner defines it, “necessarily sees the natural world through an anthropocentric lens that establishes humanity as the barometer for normative values and affirms the centrality of human life” (188). The Lorax book and film, however, present the valley’s creatures as actual animals who, though perhaps a little strange, are generally unable to speak in human language, and whose distress matters because all living beings matter. While the filmic incarnations of these creatures arguably flirt with anthropomorphism, their depictions and values seem far less “human” than those of Thumper the rabbit in Disney’s Bambi (1942), Mumble the penguin in Happy Feet, or Simba the lion in The Lion King. I would suggest that, while these creatures’ lack of speech/ voice might seem to be a weak attempt at resisting the anthropomorphism so common in animated children’s films, the significance of speech in relation to this particular narrative and the Lorax’s role in it serves to emphasize the differences between human and animal.
Further, Seuss’s Once-ler is clearly humanoid, though not explicitly Homo sapiens.2 Visually, then, Seuss questions the Once-ler’s supposed distance from and superiority over the natural world. Conversely, the Lorax is made to appear “[n]either human nor animal” (Lebduska 174); he is a furry orange biped able to speak for a natural world that cannot speak for itself. The Lorax thus similarly occupies a hybrid space between, and linking, the seemingly disparate human and natural realms. But despite this narrative and the visual interlocking of realms frequently thought distinct or disaffiliated, the Once-ler chooses in both texts to reject the needs of other creatures, the health of the valley, and the pleas of the Lorax. It is not until he fells the last Truffula tree and is left alone in the dingy valley that the Once-ler realizes the need for an ecocentric consciousness.
Both film and book, then, argue for the value of all life, noting that living organisms, including human beings, depend upon the responsible use and care of their shared ecosystem. While both versions support the value of humans’ environmental responsibility, they also treat humanity’s well-being as equal to that of the neighboring flora and fauna. By illustrating the ways in which [End Page 44] the valley’s wildlife relies upon the Truffula trees and how the pollution of air and water—a process furthered by the removal of the trees—leads to the destruction of an ecosystem, both print and filmic texts combat anthropocentric conceptions of the costs of waste and pollution. Each strives to show first how overcutting and pollution negatively affect the valley’s water, air, and animals, before depicting the toll such loss (including the loss of the creatures forced to flee the destruction) takes on the people who inflicted it. In discussing the need for human society to develop a “land ethic,” Aldo Leopold argues for the necessity of a conservation ethic that, like the one later promoted in The Lorax, “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for [one’s] fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such” (204). Leopold contends that a relationship to and appreciation of the land motivated not by economic desires, but by this sense of community, is both possible and necessary (214). Both Seuss and the Lorax filmmakers clearly subscribe to an “ethic” similar to Leopold’s and attempt to shape the values of their young audience, striving to represent for them a more complete picture of the operations and interdependence of terrestrial ecosystems.
In attempting to productively expand on Seuss’s text, the Lorax filmmakers also strive to represent a hopeful ending that suggests eco-redemption as a possibility, without resorting to the forced happy ending seen in much profit-driven media. For example, in The Lion King, Simba’s return to the pride brings rain and reinvigorates a devastated Serengeti, while in FernGully, fairy magic is largely responsible for both the destruction of the oil monster Hexxus and the growth of a rainforest whose well-being depends on humans remembering to behave better in the future. As both Pike and Bruckner note, in ecocinematic films, the desire to propose simplistic, satisfying, and immediate solutions to issues raised in a text often takes advantage of “film’s ability to accelerate time, to collapse years of recovery into a few seconds, creating a false understanding of how natural processes work” (Bruckner 193). The slow accretion of natural damage is obscured by such films, while their proposed solutions seem both magically successful and instantaneous (Pike 18). Such endings deflate urgency and the need for the concern of the audience, with films such as Bambi suggesting rather that “mothers and forests are easily (endlessly?) renewable” (Bruckner 192). While an immediate return to Eden might be emotionally satisfying and, as Pike observes, thus more likely to make the production company money, such endings give audiences a false sense of what is and is not possible for nature. In portraying resources as easily recoverable despite wanton misuse, they may even discourage a desire to conserve. Lebduska suggests that “the vision of nature as an inexhaustible source of material to be consumed” is part of how “American children are quickly socialized into their roles as consumers” (172), a role and ideology to which Seuss attempted to call attention in his text.
The Lorax filmmakers do take up this call in their narrative, striving to further Seuss’s aims by resisting the instant gratification of the forced happy [End Page 45] ending so prevalent in children’s ecofilms. The film’s conclusion provides hope perhaps less conditional than that of Seuss’s book, yet ultimately more realistic and nuanced than typical Hollywood eco-fare.3 The end of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax features a time-lapse sequence in which a Truffula seed sprouts and begins to grow, hinting at the complex and protracted efforts needed to recover degraded ecosystems. The film concludes not with a view of a resplendent and expansive forest of Truffulas, but rather with a number of infant trees being tended by the Once-ler, as a single Swomee-Swan returns to the valley.
In addition to the ecological ways in which the Lorax movie expands on Seuss’s text, the film extends the book’s “UNLESS” mandate. The filmmakers not only encourage individual action, but also urge communities to alter their attitudes toward the environment, to value the trees, and to stand up to destructive corporations. By promoting community-based action, the film takes a political position that critiques what we earlier saw Newman deride as “unfettered individual freedom,” an ideology in which even Seuss’s text participates to a certain extent. Indeed, activist academic Michael Maniates argues that the book
echoes and amplifies an increasingly dominant, largely American response to the contemporary environmental crisis. This response half-consciously understands environmental degradation as the product of individual shortcomings (the Once-ler’s greed, for example), best countered by action that is staunchly individual and typically consumer-based (buy a tree and plant it!) [sic] It embraces the notion that knotty issues of consumption, consumerism, power and responsibility can be resolved neatly and cleanly through enlightened, uncoordinated consumer choice.(32–33; emphasis in original)
Community activism, such as that advocated by this film, conceives of power as systemic, and views sociopolitical power (and ideology) that it considers destructive as necessitating group resistance; the rejection of community serves only to further the dominance of those who rely on the strength/power of systems.
Though the majority of the Lorax film focuses on Ted’s actions—following his quest for a Truffula tree and depicting the Once-ler’s eventual decision to entrust him with the last seed—it is ultimately the Thneedvillers who make the communitywide decision to plant that seed. In contrast, Seuss’s book relies on individual change, insisting that “UNLESS someone like you” (my emphasis), the individual reader, changes his or her priorities and chooses to “speak for the trees,” nothing will get better. The implication of this message is that a single ecologically motivated individual can regrow and protect a forest and, in so doing, call back the Lorax. From a progressive standpoint, this proposed solution overlooks the power of socioeconomic and political systems that both depend on the primary valuation of greenbacks over green peace and constrain the actions and effectiveness of individuals. In this worldview, American individualism is harmful to the environment as well as to those individuals restricted [End Page 46] and exploited by the oppressive economic and political systems that direct and constrain daily life and opportunity in American society. Similarly, the Lorax film recognizes the need for a communitywide paradigm shift on the subject of environmental values; thus it represents the final confrontation as a battle between the ecological consciousness/land ethic represented by Ted, Audrey, and Grammy, and the economic consciousness/wealth ethic represented by O’Hare.
Ted cannot regrow the forest by himself any more than the child reader of Seuss’s text could; in order to accomplish this task, the values of Thneedville, and of our society, must change. In the final drama, after Ted has knocked down a piece of the wall enclosing the city of Thneedville to reveal the devastated environment caused by overuse and carelessness, its inhabitants must choose whether or not to disregard O’Hare’s greed-driven urgings and let the last seed grow. In what David Whitley would likely cast as a uniquely American idea of wilderness, the Thneedvillers must confront what they have walled off and erased from view and memory. For the American pastoral, “wilderness—almost by definition—is something deemed to be apart from the ordinary domain of the human; its specialness as a region is inherent in its remoteness. Wilderness is a product of separation: the boundary of civilization but also, within American pastoral, the very ground of our redemption” (Whitley 11). Indeed, it is to that redemption that the viewer is returned, moving outside the city as the Thneedvillers sing: “It is just one tiny seed / But it’s all we really need / It’s time to banish all your greed / Imagine Thneedville flowered and treed! / Let this be our solemn creed! / We say let it grow” (Paul and Daurio 100–101).
The Ted, the Bad, and the Ugly: Expanding the Problem
A promotion of environmental ideologies and an ecocentric, community-based “call to action” do not, however, mean that other messages are not simultaneously endorsed by this same movie, perhaps even in ways that negate its pro-environmental message. Indeed, such dualism is to some degree characteristic of the American pastoral ideology explicated by Lawrence Buell as a “green script” (33), wherein the “essential America” is depicted in art as “exurban, green, pastoral, even wild” (32). This ideology—of which, I would suggest, the Lorax film is an excellent example—displays a “double-edged character” with a simultaneous draw toward both consensus and resistance, a uniquely American pastoral doublespeak generated by an initial understanding of “Euro-Americ[a] . . . as both a dream hostile to the standing order of civilization (decadent Europe, later hypercivilizing America) and at the same time a model for the civilization in the process of being built” (Buell 51, 50). Additionally, the ideological valences of film and ecofilms more generally necessitate consideration; as Willoquet-Maricondi argues, “cinematic representations of nature and of environmental issues must be examined critically for the assumptions and ideologies they foster and reinforce” (“Introduction” 7). Though Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax productively expands upon the environmentalism of Seuss’s book, [End Page 47] the way in which the film’s narrative depicts the source of the eco-threat, the figure of blame for environmental destruction, reduces the impact of its call to action and its emphasis on group engagement. In essence, the film undercuts its own expansion of Seuss’s proposed solution to the problem of the American profit-centered ethic, serving instead to socialize the audience into “appropriate” activism and thus to defuse, through manipulation and redirection, the threat of resistance.
Like its source, which shrewdly highlights a capitalist tendency to strategically confuse in consumers the distinction between “wants” and “needs” (Henderson, Kennedy, and Chamberlin 133), the filmic Lorax offers through the figure of the Once-ler a scathing critique of a corporate ethic that values profit over plant life. The faddish popularity of the Thneed serves, in both texts, as a reminder that “The advertising of wants, not needs, is embedded in our culture” (134). In particular, the satiric song “How Bad Can I Be?” mocks contemporary corporate dishonesty, particularly in the realms of marketing and advertising, using humor to identify the powerful yet destructive machinery of big business. Additionally, the film introduces the character of clean-air tycoon Aloysius O’Hare to further the goal of demystifying corporate America’s savvy use of media to manipulate the public, while simultaneously revealing the greed that fuels these processes. Early on, the film grants viewers access to a meeting between O’Hare and two of his “Marketing Guys.” During this scene, audience members are treated to the following lampoonery:
You really think people are stupid enough to buy this?! . . .Marketing Guy #1:
Our research shows that if you put something in a plastic bottle, people will buy it. . . . And what’s more, when we build a new factory to make the plastic bottles, the air quality’s just going to get worse.Marketing Guy #2:
Which will make people want our air even more, and drive sales . . . where? Through the roof! . . .O’Hare:
So in other words: the more smog in the sky . . . the more people will buy.
O’Hare is depicted as a remorseless corporate monster who lacks even the Once-ler’s pipings of conscience, and who supports and even perpetrates environmental destruction in order to swell his profits. Yet, despite appearances, the Lorax movie does not actually challenge what it identifies as organizations and systems of power that promote environmental destruction or ideologies that encourage waste and carelessness.
Bob Henderson, Merle Kennedy, and Chuck Chamberlin note that in his book, Seuss associates the Once-ler with pioneers and frontier expansion in the United States, drawing “parallels to the American expansion story, the ‘opening’ of the West. The Once-ler arrives in a Conestoga wagon to a ‘new’ world. . . . The Lorax maintains a general sense of place . . . but there is no doubt that this place exists and is modeled on the American frontier” (136). The Once-ler is thus associated with the American ideology of Manifest Destiny and churning [End Page 48] “progress,” a colonial project of conquering all life in the path of national advance; Seuss’s critique could thus be considered political as well as social. The Lorax movie, however, limits that very political critique in its expansion of the Once-ler’s back story and its introduction of O’Hare.
The Lorax filmmakers visually and narratively code both of these embodiments of environmental destruction as greed-driven entrepreneurs rising from working-class semipoverty to become wealthy at the expense of their environment and the lives (human and animal) that depend on that ecosystem. Elaborating on the Once-ler’s background by moving from the faceless family members depicted by Seuss to a film version of the character’s homestead that includes a barn out back, a rusted-out pickup, several loose tires littering the yard, and miles of yellow grass stretching in every direction, the filmmakers visually signal the Thneed-inventor’s uncouth rural origins. The Once-ler’s shrewish mother, who sports blue eyeshadow, big hair, cowboy boots, and a hillbilly twang, and his twin brothers, Brett and Chet, who have the combined IQ of a brick and are decked out in plaid shirts and overalls, further suggest the unsophisticated back-country poverty of the Once-ler and his family. This implication is made explicit when the Once-ler has sold his first Thneed and calls his family to help him meet the now rampant demand for his product. Into a picturesque day in the valley, “Sun shining . . . a blue sky . . . a perfect day,” crash the Once-ler’s kin in their massive RV, horn blaring “Dixie,” and, the Once-ler narrates, “It was all downhill from there” (Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax; Paul and Daurio 63). The arrival of his family heralds the corruption of this working-class dreamer and the destruction of all life in the valley. Despite the Lorax’s warnings, the Once-ler is easily swayed by his mother into breaking his promise not to cut down any more trees. After all, harvesting the tufts (a process accompanied by banjo music) without cutting down trees takes far too long, and there is money to be made.
The laughter encouraged by such moments would seem to be the quintessence of what Seuss himself describes in a piece for the New York Times as the “conditioned” laughter of grown-ups:
. . . unless you were a very lucky little Willy or Mary, you soon began to laugh at some very odd things. Your laughs, unfortunately, began to get mixed with sneers and smirks.
This conditioned laughter the grown-ups taught you depended entirely on their conditions. Financial conditions. Political conditions. Racial, religious and social conditions. You began to laugh at people your family feared or despised—people they felt inferior to, or people they felt better than.(“But for Grown-Ups” BRA2; emphasis in original)
It is both interesting and disturbing that such stereotyped/retrograde characterizations are multiplying in contemporary children’s animated features. For example, the trailer for Disney’s 2013 film Planes features a less than nuanced buddy plane named “El Chupacabra,” while Universal’s Despicable Me 2, released [End Page 49] the same year, makes light of both racial stereotyping and the violent treatment of women. First, the film’s villain “El Macho” and his son are repeatedly, and far from subtly, depicted in ways that draw on Chicano stereotypes; later on, in an apparently comedic date scene, the tranquilized body of Gru’s obnoxious date Shannon is carelessly manhandled and tossed about for ostensibly humorous effect. It seems particularly significant that such ostentatious labeling is somewhat more permissible, even overlooked, in children’s movies—products that one might think ought to be more, not less, concerned with depicting well-rounded, diverse, and respectful characterizations for their audiences—than in films for adults. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax likewise participates, though somewhat more subtly, in this conditioning of laughter, teaching young audiences whom it is and isn’t acceptable to ridicule; much like El Macho, Brett and Chet might inspire chuckles, but never respect. Similarly, O’Hare, though more malevolent than the majority of the Once-ler’s family, is made ridiculous, his small stature comedically highlighted throughout the film.
O’Hare, like the Once-ler, is pictured as coming from a working-class background, introduced to the audience as a blue-collar worker dressed in coveralls bearing an embroidered name patch. In the viewer’s first and only encounter with O’Hare pre–zillionaire status, we look down on him as a small, asthmatic teenager in braces, as he and a coworker take down a billboard advertising Thneeds, with the latter wondering “what the next million-dollar invention’s gonna be” (Paul and Daurio 79). Just as the Once-ler is coded not only as working class, but also as coming from a poor, “redneck” family, O’Hare is coded, by virtue of both his last name and the shamrock-shaped desk chair in his high-tech office/blimp, as not just working class but also Irish. In this way, the film represents the threat to the environment and natural life, including human life, as issuing not from the wealthy or from a corporate power structure, but from “rags-to-riches” embodiments of the American Dream; it is the nouveau riche, the up-and-comers, who should be mistrusted, while “old money” hides just outside the frame, neither implicated nor attended to. By thus figuring untutored working-class greed as the great threat to the environment, the film reinforces an old power structure. In representing working-class successes as dangerous and destructive, the film’s narrative both draws audience attention away from the dynastic power structures of the corporate aristocracy and also works to negate “new money” upstarts who could potentially compete with these older, entrenched power centers. As Lisa Lowe aptly notes, “in the history of the United States, capital has maximized its profits not through rendering labor ‘abstract’ but precisely through the social productions of ‘difference,’ of restrictive particularity and illegitimacy marked by race, nation, geographical origins, and gender” (27–28; emphasis mine). The film marks only the Once-ler and O’Hare with geo-ethnic cues, while Ted’s and Audrey’s families enjoy the privilege of unremarkable, invisible (that is, generically white), middle-class status. [End Page 50]
The film casts working-class pretenders to the throne as the problem; “they,” the audience is informed, represent a threat to our way of life and, eventually, to our planet. In this way, the film reinforces the geography of stereotypes in the United States, casting the Southern hillbilly and the blue-collar Irish interloper as upstart catalysts of destruction. These individuals are portrayed as dominated by greed, unable to handle money, and undeserving of the power they wield. Meanwhile, others who have, across time and place, held the reins of power and accessed its resources, who have created and reinforced the ethic of profit, are set safely outside the frame of both censure and resistance.
Notably, the Once-ler, swayed by his family and drawn into greed and destruction through an entirely human yearning for his mother’s love and approval, lacks any discernible accent and dresses in a fairly standard way. It is culturally necessary that the Once-ler be represented as the “sport” in his family; this inherent difference in his nature implicitly accounts for his redemption by the solidly middle-class Ted and what seems to be the exclusively middle-class community of Thneedville. Such a conclusion resolves (or rejects) the differences previously present within the community, using what Sacvan Bercovitch terms a “rhetoric of consensus” to remind “us that although the concept of hegemony involves the dialectics of change, the directions of change are in turn crucially affected by the terms of hegemonic constraint. . . . the rhetoric of consensus molded what was to all appearances the most heterogeneous ‘people’ in the world [the people of the US] into the most monolithic of modern cultures” (47). Within the filmic world, those characters the audience is encouraged to admire—Ted and, to some extent, the Once-ler—are generally unmarked by the geo-ethnic coloring that casts the villains of the piece as unnatural interlopers. Further, Seuss’s own authority and progressive credibility are claimed for those unmarked (middle-class) heroes through the filmmakers’ choice to call the boy character, who is nameless in the book, after Theodore “Ted” Geisel. As Ian Marshall notes of the original text, it is the Once-ler’s speech that actually effects change to any degree: he is the one who tells the boy the story and urges him to do better; it is he who translates the one word, “UNLESS,” left behind by the Lorax. Conversely, though the Lorax himself represents nature, he is unable to change the Once-ler’s behavior through his speech: “As a spokesman for nature, then, the Lorax is ineffective” (Marshall 88, 90). The levels of translation/mediation—from trees to Lorax to Once-ler (to Seuss)—built into the book are then manipulated by the film to create a hierarchy of cultural value and salvation. Here, Ted’s increased visibility and the evident effectiveness of his speech, like the words of Seuss himself in and through his book, seem designed to convince a community to care for the natural world. Ted’s naturalizing unmarkedness, along with the film’s clear efforts to distinguish the Once-ler from his crude family, contribute to the film’s valorization of the status quo.
The film thus erects a hierarchy of privilege and agency wherein the ostensibly middle-class characters, whose status is made invisible by their privilege, [End Page 51] act for the greater good of society and should be entrusted with its continued maintenance, while the ethnically, geographically, and, most importantly, socio-economically marked white male characters act in ways condemned as harmful and untrustworthy. Finally, and most troubling of all, the people of color and the women and girls in this film are denied even dangerous agency. While a select few (white) female characters—namely, Audrey and the Once-ler’s mother—are able to affect their environment through actions they encourage in (white) men, most of the women and all of the people of color are permitted only to support and praise the actions of the white, male hero(es) with song and the joyful waving of arms.
It is certainly possible, even probable, that there are individuals from diverse backgrounds who acquire wealth without regard for the natural life (including human life) they destroy in the process. Suggesting, however, that corporate greed and its resultant environmental destruction are the by-products solely of working-class profligacy and avarice directs the collective activism advocated by the film’s conclusion away from larger structures of power and ideology, which might otherwise be threatened by the development of a community-based ecological consciousness. Further, this misinformation and misdirection also obscures those systems of wealth and industry that outlast the lifespan of any single individual. According to Newman, though culture and the environment mutually shape and reshape each other, “certain relationships disproportionately shape social orders and their relations with nature. The most definitive of these relationships are those that confer effective control of the means of producing the material needs of human life through the collective application of labor to nature. In our modern society . . . that control remains in the hands of a tiny minority” (202). This powerful minority may structure the operations of society and nature, but it is significantly and, I would suggest, purposefully displaced/absent from this film, and thus also from the notice and critique of its viewers.
Bruckner’s criticism that the Disney version of Bambi particularizes the greatest danger to the environment—hunters alone are censured—applies likewise to the Lorax movie’s similarly selective blaming. As with Bambi’s emphatic condemnation of hunters, the filmic Lorax represents not just “humans” as the threat, but a particular subset of them: greedy, working-class up-and-comers. By laying blame for environmental destruction solely on the nouveau riche, the Lorax movie, like Bambi, displaces and obscures truths about waste and destruction. Bruckner writes:
Equally disturbing is the way Bambi absolves viewers from examining their role in environmental degradation. Rather than locating ecological destruction as a problem for which we all bear a measure of responsibility, blame is assigned exclusively to the hunters. As such, the film allows us to locate the environmental problem “over there,” rather than “here,” in the aggregate practices of all human beings.(194) [End Page 52]
Rather than shrouding the culpability of all persons in the overuse and destruction of the environment, however, I would argue that the Lorax filmmakers’ explicit invocation of class when constructing the scapegoat of the film4 constitutes an attempt to obscure the temporally and geographically extensive, environmentally destructive operations of those in power as they act to secure their own wealth at the expense of both the environment and other members of society. By representing the threat to the environment as corporate avarice attached to the persons of isolated, working-class men who got greedy, the movie structures and directs the audience’s potential environmental activism away from those with the greatest socioeconomic power. For Newman, such strategies are a way of “perpetuat[ing] that other idea on which those who have presided over the destruction of our lives and world rely so heavily: that they do not, as a class, as a ruling class, exist” (203). Whether it be the privilege of hiding behind the construct of normality enjoyed by characters such as Ted, or the privilege of removal from the narrative granted upper-class/corporate aristocracy, in this film invisibility is power.
The values communicated by the filmic Lorax are particularly significant when one considers its status and orientation as a children’s text designed to inspire eco-values in the next generation. How, then, might the film’s development of both the solution and the problem proposed by Seuss’s original book act to structure what it posits as the future activism of those children, and to promote an “appropriate” resistance that allows the citizenry to feel effective without permitting them to actually threaten the status quo? By obscuring the presence of the geographically and temporally expansive systems, ideologies, and even dynasties that control and constrain the substance of our lives, and by directing the collective intervention of well-meaning individuals away from the actions and resources of those in power, movies such as Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax may divert and manipulate activism.
Manhattan Takes The Lorax: Beyond the Eco-Narrative
I have argued that the Lorax movie signals its progressivism by broadening the eco-activist values proposed by Seuss in his text, promoting collective action and an ecological consciousness, but that the film’s narrative simultaneously relies upon scapegoating to manipulate, direct, and form that collective resistance in a way that supports those holding entrenched positions of power. In this section, I turn to how the marketing of this vexed narrative further undercuts and potentially unravels the movie’s advocacy of fundamental change through systemic community action, promoting instead what Maniates terms “the individualization of responsibility” (33). According to Maniates, such a strategy for change via individual consumption rather than through organized social action stems in part from the heightening of the American ideology of individualism during the 1980s: “the public increasingly understands environmentalism as an individual, rational, cleanly apolitical process that can deliver a future that [End Page 53] works without raising voices or mobilizing constituencies” (33, 40, 41). The marketing of the Lorax movie takes full advantage of this vision of environmentalism as the greener form of consumption as usual.
As Seuss’s characters were taken to the world outside the filmic narrative, the Lorax began to speak for IHOP, Mazda, and corporate partners such as GE Lighting, Sun-Maid Raisins, and HP Ink, to name just a few. At least nine of the sixteen tips for “going green” on the movie’s Web site (linked to and drawing from the “Green Is Universal” site), directly or implicitly suggest change via green purchasing, while none of the tips encourages any sort of systemic change.5 A cursory Internet search reveals product tie-ins that include T-shirts, mugs, notebooks, gardening sets, pencils topped with mock Truffula tufts, a tree seedling to plant on the Lorax’s behalf (individually wrapped in a plastic bag), biodegradable Seventh Generation cleaning supplies, No. 2 pencils made from recycled newspaper, and even a Lorax-themed addition (presumably with accompanying merchandise) to the Seuss Landing attraction at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Florida.
In fact, a widespread cultural association of the Lorax character with environmental issues—likely even by those consumers who have not read the book or seen the film—suggests the financial attractiveness of making this movie. Coming off the successes of Twentieth Century Fox’s 2008 film Horton Hears a Who! (listed on IMDB.com as having grossed approximately $155 million in the US as of 29 August 2008) and Universal’s own 2010 smash hit Despicable Me (listed on IMDB.com as having grossed about $252 million in the US as of 14 January 2011), Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures could draw on the eco-ethos of the Lorax character to promote a positive/green image for themselves, while also using American culture’s tendency toward the “individualization of [eco-]responsibility” to simultaneously satisfy more corporate desires. As Audrey Ricker states in relation to the Lion King animated storybook, “The preservation of financial hegemony and the world domination of images possessing exchange value—by which I mean images having the power to commodify while acting as commodities—are goals pursued by major American film studios” (41). In what Ricker describes as “aesthetic imperialism,” studios often rely on and even promote their (young) audience’s desire to consume product tie-ins by emphasizing that product’s desirable relationship to and replication of a popular and recognizable image from a film (41–42). In this way, the merchandising and marketing of the Lorax film easily fits into what Maniates terms the “‘win-win’ approach,” prevalent during the Reagan years and still popular today, in which “a vast range of environmentally friendly, economically attractive technologies . . . are showcased as political-economic means towards a conflict-free transition to a future that works. These kinds of technologies make environmental sense, to be sure, and they typically make economic sense as well” (39). Thus the community-based activism proposed by and then ideologically manipulated and undercut within the film is further unraveled by an accompanying promotional strategy that draws on and advances [End Page 54] the myth of environmental change through individual consumption. While the marketing and merchandising of the Lorax movie merits its own full-length exploration, it is worth mentioning in relation to the ideological work attempted by this film. It could be argued that the Seussian play and engaging/“cool” aspects of the film’s narrative contrast with and potentially even strive against its “hotter” product and advertising tie-ins.6 The contradictory nature of these tie-ins has not gone unrecognized; the number of irate blog posts on the subject is telling. In an article for CNN Living, Katia Hetter notes objections to the “movie’s commercial tie-ins,” and quotes blogger and author Jennifer Taggart as saying: “In the movie, the corporate ‘bad guy’ puts up billboards for products saying ‘Lorax Approved,’ and the message was that co-opting the Lorax’s image and brand is a bad thing. . . . To me, the compelling message of the book, and the movie, was that slick advertising can make us want things we don’t need, and producing them can result in catastrophic environmental harm” (Hetter). Along similar lines, in a special 2012 “Oscar Edition” of the segment “Movies That Are Destroying America,” Stephen Colbert pronounces,
I personally think that Dr. Seuss would only be disappointed that The Lorax has only 70 product tie-ins. So to the producers of the movie I say, this cashtaculous sell out is not quite enough. / I’m demanding more branding of Loraxian stuff. / With what you can buy, boy, the sky is the limit, / A filet-o-fish meal with real Humming-Fish in it. / Filmmakers get cracking, the market is lacking / A splendiferous Lorax themed drill made for fracking. / Or the fine certain something that all people need, / Indeed, you’ll succeed if you sold us a Thneed. / They’re easy to make, if you only take / All the Truffula tufts off the trees by the lake. / They’re comfy and thick, as the thick ironies / Of the Lorax and Seuss hawking big SUVs.(“Movies”)
While Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax strives in some ways to challenge ecologically destructive corporate values and to incite community activism, its message is simultaneously tangled, constrained, manipulated, and unraveled from both within the story and outside of it. The use of the Lorax as a figurehead for change through consumption is itself somewhat undercut by the film’s satire and promotion of systemic, community-driven (if misdirected) change. There is room for growth—and, in growing, for change—as we continue to wrestle with speech that is strange.
Arielle C. McKee is a PhD student of medieval literature at Purdue University. Her research interests include magic in medieval and contemporary literature, young adult fiction and film, and ecocriticism.
. My immense thanks to the staff at ChLAQ and to the anonymous reviewers for their attention and invaluable feedback. Further, my greatest appreciation to Ryan Schneider, Christian Knoeller, Manushag Powell, and Kaye McKee for helping to inspire, develop, and refine this piece and its ideas. [End Page 55]
1. All of these phrases appear in the lyrics of “How Bad Can I Be?” as well as in Seuss’s book.
2. The film goes Seuss one better; it explains away the illustrated Once-ler’s green arms by suggesting that he is wearing gloves.
3. As a caveat, however, it is worth noting that the suggestion that a new Truffula population could grow from a single seed—a solution that ignores the problems of pollination and the genetic weaknesses that would inevitably result from an attempt to regrow an entire population from a single plant—is, at some level, a semimagical solution to resource exhaustion and ecosystemic degradation.
4. “The scapegoat released to us by the text is a scapegoat both in and for the text. The scapegoat that we must disengage from the text for ourselves is the scapegoat of the text. He cannot appear in the text though he controls all its themes; he is never mentioned as such” (Girard 118; emphasis in original).
5. The film’s Web site, <www.theloraxmovie.com>, originally included a page listing corporate partners. As of 11 November 2014, clicking the link on Google directs the viewer to a page on Universal’s own site. The site <greenisuniversal.com> is described on Google as “NBCUniversal’s ongoing sustainability initiative dedicated to raising environmental awareness and helping to nurture a healthy planet.”
6. I would argue that the merchandising of this film and the commodification of its characters as sellable voices of eco-good can be considered a “hotting-up” (McLuhan 50) of the “cooler,” more playful Lorax film. McLuhan suggests that “hotter media” are “filled with data” (39) and often “serve [like the writing technology of paper versus a stone tablet] to unify spaces horizontally, both in political and entertainment empires” (40). The glossy packaging and “hypno[tic]” (McLuhan 50) advertisements and tieins featuring the Lorax and the valley creatures allow little room for dialogue with or interpretation by the audience; unlike the filmic or textual Lorax, the message of these advertisements and tie-ins is singular and presented for total and unquestioning receipt by the viewer.