Smug Seuss Cinema Sells Story Short

Review of The Lorax, Directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda


I am torn by movies like The Lorax (2012). It is a nicely-animated, moderately-fun kid’s movie with a pro-environment message. It is also horribly preachy. Why does environmentalism seem stuck in a stance of permanent sanctimony?

Sneed-ville is a walled city so artificial that the trees are made of plastic. A boy decides he must find out what happened to the trees (to impress a girl, naturally). He wanders outside the city limits to find “The Once-ler” to learn the legend of the lost trees. The Once-ler admits that it was his fault. Long ago (most of the movie takes place in flashback) he chopped down the forest to grow a business. Cue violin.

I’m an environmentalist—because God is. He made the world and declared it “very good,” (Genesis 1:31). Creation reflects some of God’s attributes, so much so that we can actually learn about him by reflecting on the world: “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made,” (Romans 1:21). Nature itself testifies to God’s awesomeness. David wrote that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” (Psalm 19:1). So I generally like stories in which protecting nature is a virtue.

But to be a story and not a hectoring sermon, there should be actual characters, meaningful moral choices, conflict, and an antagonist who is more than cardboard. The movie misses opportunity after opportunity to make this an entertaining or interesting film. For instance, the movie has nothing at all positive to say about work or business. The Once-ler is an inventor who desires to make things. This ought to be a good thing, but the Once-ler’s invention (The Thneed) is obviously useless and is held up for the audience’s mockery. The villain of the film is a corporate CEO who uses his vast wealth to crush opposition and spy on people, and who tries to kill the trees because they produce for free what he sells for a profit: clean air. No nuance here.

You might think I’m being a little harsh on a kids’ animated film. But just look at Pixar to see how a cartoon can still have emotional maturity, narrative nuance, and real depth.

The film had a few bright spots. The animated landscape is quite beautiful. The singing fish were the wittiest thing in the film. And at one point, a villain sings “How bad can it be? I’m just doing what comes naturally.” Usually doing what comes naturally is a good thing in Hollywood. Kudos to The Lorax for getting this much right: our natures are not the measure of right conduct. In fact, we are called to deny—even crucify—our sinful natures in order to follow Christ.

The problem with The Lorax is the problem with contemporary environmentalism broadly. It can’t find a way to articulate its message—that we should care for the environment—in a way that is winsome, respectful, and truthful. It too often relies on scares, anger, or distortions. The Lorax is even off-target in highlighting the plight of trees. Deforestation is not a major environmental threat, at least not in the United States. By some counts, there are as many trees in the U.S. today as there were in the 18th Century (albeit not the gorgeous, irreplaceable Old Growth trees that only exist in a few protected reserves now). The countries most threatened by deforestation—Brazil, for example—are those whose people are least likely to have an opportunity to see a film like The Lorax.

If you want an entertaining show that will inspire you to love and care for the planet, respect the astonishing creation, and give thanks to the Creator, don’t watch The Lorax. Watch the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth or Life.

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