My son recently emerged shaken from an encounter with one of the scariest classics of children's literature. No, not the collected works of Mr. Stine. I refer to the rhyming environmental apocalypse that is “The Lorax.”
You remember the Lorax? He speaks for the trees. Also the brown Bar-ba-loots, in their Bar-ba-loot suits. (Say it with me. It's fun.) But despite the little guy's best efforts, the greedy Once-ler just keeps turning Truffula trees into ugly double-knitted Thneeds.
“I thought Dr. Seuss books were supposed to be happy,” Nate said, wide-eyed and a little tearstained after his cousin screened the 1972 animated short for him. “She kept telling me I needed to relax,” he told me. “But I couldn't bear to watch everything being destroyed by the Once-ler. He's an old crook.”
I remember sitting in an elementary classroom with similar feelings, hoping that the film would break while there were still a few candy-colored Truffulas left.
We've dabbled in Seuss, but that particular book never made the bedtime reading list. For one, he's all about “The Lightning Thief” and “Dragon Slayer's Academy” and for another, I prefer that our time together not be punctuated with outraged protests. Also, as I explained to him, “The Lorax” isn't purely a story. The fable is a powerful piece of propaganda. (I'm not exactly opposed to trees or clean water, so I'm fine with its message.) Not for nothing did Ted Geisel work in advertising before he created “The Cat in the Hat.”
I know at least one child who became a vegetarian after seeing “Babe,” and I'm betting many of today's environmentalists started out as second-graders determined to bring back the Lorax. The recipe, if you'll recall, is simple: “Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water and feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax, and all of his friends, may come back.” How effective is “The Lorax”? I haven't read the book in more than 25 years, and I didn't need to look up that quote.
So, I was a little skeptical when Universal announced yesterday that it is making a new version of “The Lorax,” for release in 2012. At just 22 minutes, it's rough going for the second-grade set. How are they going to stretch it out to two hours? Lots of close ups of axes on trees? A lingering pan to the line of Humming Fish drearily trudging away? (And will the controversial Lake Eerie line that Seuss cut from the book but kept in the DVD make it into the new version?) For sure, there will be plenty of slapstick and some potty humor to soften the uncompromising message, but at bottom, it's not really a heartwarming comedy. Will the Once-ler become a Johnny Appleseed-type convert, sowing Truffula seeds the length of the Street of the Lifted Lorax?
All I have to say is: They'd better not mess with the ending.