Picture this: the year is 2012, you’re wearing your UGG boots and your favorite cardigan, and you just got dropped off by your mom at the movie theater with your friends. What are you watching? Maybe The Hunger Games or Walt Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph? Nope, today you’re seeing a film adapted from a classic picture book in the school library: The Lorax.
Fast forward to now. You may be one of the thousands of people on campus who care about environmental sustainability. So am I! As a Planet Blue Student Leader here at the University of Michigan and an avid fan of Illumination Entertainment’s The Lorax, I decided to microwave some popcorn, pull out my notebook, and re-watch the full movie (you can find it on Netflix, the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, and at multiple branches of the Ann Arbor District Library!), hoping to determine whether the beloved yellow creature on the big screen is a proper advocate for sustainability.
The film begins with the first song of many (it’s a musical!), sung by the inhabitants of Thneedville, a cheery, futuristic city with everything they could possibly imagine–well, except for trees. “Nature” is a concept unknown to the people of Thneedville. The town is fueled by big business, namely by the company that sells fresh air, O’Hare Air. Our main character, Ted, is a twelve-year-old boy infatuated with his neighbor Audrey, who loves trees. Determined to get her a tree so that she’ll fall in love with him, he ventures outside of their beloved city (which is ominously surrounded by a wall???) and is appalled by the barren, pollution-filled landscape he finds. There, he finds the house of the Once-ler, the supposed man who built Thneedville with his million-dollar idea, the Thneed. The Once-ler tells Ted the story of how he drove the Lorax, the mythical creature who speaks for the trees, and the creatures of the truffula forest away by chopping down all of the truffula trees to manufacture his Thneed. After the Once-ler gives Ted the very last truffula seed, the boy, with the help of his family and Audrey, fights O’Hare to plant the seed in the middle of town. He eventually succeeds, and we see hope for the future of Thneedville with a final view of a field of young truffula trees.
Here’s what I noticed pretty quickly: I didn’t really care about the main plot of the movie. Now you’re probably wondering, Well, then why do you even like it? The real meat of the film, in my opinion, is in the Once-ler’s story. The film is obviously very different from its original book. In Dr. Seuss’ original story, there is a single plot, a single story being told. The movie does an amazing job of bringing this story to life and making the viewer care deeply about the truffula trees and the creatures that inhabit the truffula forest. In my opinion, the most impactful scene of the movie by far was the Once-ler’s song, “How Bad Can I Be?” Here is when we see the transformation from a beautiful landscape in nature to an unlivable environment filled with smog, sludge, and not one tree. We also see the Once-ler go from a friend of the Lorax and the native creatures to a businessman who is completely willing to destroy his “friends” for profit. To be completely honest, it almost brought me to tears.
However, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed with the rest of the story. Ted is driven to search for a tree not to help save the environment, but to impress his crush. In fact, we don’t even see a clear need for real trees in Thneedville. At the beginning of the movie, Thneedville literally looks like a utopia! As long as they continued to buy synthetic air, and it wasn’t mentioned at all in the film that this was a struggle for any of the characters, they would live completely happy lives. It is only when the people of Thneedville see the devastation outside of the city’s walls that they want to plant a tree. If Ted never showed them the truth, they could’ve lived in blissful ignorance forever.
And that’s the fatal flaw of The Lorax’s major motion picture. In an environment where the natural ecosystem is completely depleted, there is no way that people could ever live in blissful ignorance. We already see the severe impacts of climate change and pollution harming communities all over the world, and it’s impossible for a walled city and bottled air to ever change that.
The movie’s depiction of Thneedville as a happy treeless society demeans the original Lorax’s entire message: a tree isn’t valuable because of its usefulness to humans or because of its aesthetic appeal. There is an inherent goodness in the truffula trees; they are valuable because they give a natural, sustainable ecosystem the resources to thrive. This isn’t a theme we see at all in Ted’s story.
Now, I’m definitely not saying we should cancel The Lorax. It’s still a great movie! However, it’s also important to acknowledge the message that Dr. Seuss originally intended, showcasing the dangers of exploiting natural resources, degrading habitats, and emitting pollution, as well as the true value of nature. Despite the original publication date of Dr. Seuss’ book The Lorax being in 1971, these issues are more prevalent now than ever. Even deforestation specifically poses extreme threats; ten million hectares of forest are deforested each year for agricultural land, the production of palm oil, and development for infrastructure. The loss of these trees contributes to climate change, desertification, habitat loss, unpredictable/more severe weather patterns, and more. In the words of Dr. Seuss*, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
*Multiple Dr. Seuss books contain racist imagery and tropes. An integral piece of environmental sustainability is justice for those who have been marginalized and disproportionately affected by the damages of environmental/climate disasters. Although this is a meaningful quote, we must work to challenge the ideology that shaped it as we work towards a more sustainable future.
Want to help to make a difference! Click here to learn more on how you can help combat environmental challenges here at U-M! Or, if you’re looking for a laugh, click here for an amazing rendition of The Lorax’s hit song “Let it Grow.”