Nicely making the transition from book to screen, Dr. Seuss' 1971 children's classic comes across like cautionary science fiction for the prepubescent set. Colorful and visually delightful, the film is complemented by lively vocal work that engages viewers without calling attention to the stars behind the voices. The film's ecological message is its primary takeaway, but that message develops as an organic element of the story rather than a moralistic afterthought. The Lorax allows us to imagine what might happen to the world were there no longer trees and air a commodity that must be purchased.
The town of Thneedville is the embodiment of that nightmare prospect, even though its inhabitants are not aware there is anything wrong. The entire city is made of plastic, bright and imaginatively shaped. The status quo only begins to fray when young Ted (Efron) tries to impress Audrey (Swift), a girl who would like more than anything to see a real tree. That quest leads Ted to break through the city limits to find the Once-ler (Helms), who is rumored to hold the secret to the trees’ disappearance. Ted's grandmother (White) encourages him and stokes him with her childhood memories of life before the trees went away. Once found, the Once-ler tells Ted his long, sad story about how he is the one responsible for the decimation of the forest outside Thneedville's borders. It involves a rash, young man out to make his fortune by going into the woods armed with marshmallows to feed the bears and an axe to cut down the trees (which look like psychedelic palm trees topped with colorful, round tufts). His actions bring forth the Lorax, a peanut-shaped thing with a mustache, who is the guardian of the forest. The Lorax and the other animals try to coexist with the Once-ler at first, but his business success becomes their downfall, and they all depart. Ever since, the Once-ler has remained a hermit in the woods, harboring one last seed that he passes on to Ted, who uses it to get the girl and ultimately show the entire community the error of their ways.
Although the movie's ecological message is dominant, it’s not heavy-handed. Rather, the ecological warnings are tossed out with the same joie de vivre the Once-ler displays when tossing marshmallows to the bears. In fact, on the subliminal-message scale, I have more trouble with the film's only electric rock song being associated with the movie's bad guy, Mr. O'Hare (Riggle), who bottles air to sell to the citizens of Thneedville. The film’s zippy and buoyant framework, however, make the lessons seem not like medicine.