Dr. Seuss's prescient, cautionary environmental fable The Lorax (1971) was one of his best children's books. Despite claims to the contrary on the disc's single featurette, that "nobody was talking about the environment" at the time except for Seuss, in fact during the late 1960s and early '70s concerns about the long-term effects of pollution, deforestation, and smog was on everyone's mind, and for the first time environmental problems and possible solutions were widely discussed in public schools. Lots of movies addressed the problem too, from No Blade of Grass (1970) and Soylent Green (1973) to the radical if loopy Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971).
But Seuss's story, no matter that it was a children's book, was pure poetry, and considering how much closer to (or beyond) the tipping point we've come in the 40 years since, the book resonates stronger than ever.
Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), directed by Chuck Jones, was the first and by far the best of the TV specials. The next one, Horton Hears a Who! (1970), also (co-)directed by Jones, was pretty good, too, as was Dr. Seuss on the Loose (1973), an omnibus of tales directed by Hawley Pratt. Later Seuss specials weren't so hot, however. The animation grew sloppy, visually they were disappointing when compared to Seuss's original artwork, and the direction was often poor. The Lorax falls somewhere in the middle. It's generally good, but some of what works so well in the book doesn't translate particularly well to the screen.
Warner Home Video's "Dr. Seuss Deluxe Edition" Blu-ray, which also includes a standard DVD and Ultraviolet Digital Copy of this 25-minute show, is very disappointing. The show itself looks nice in high-definition, but the supplements are singularly lacking in interest and quality, and with an SRP of $24.98 is absurdly overpriced. Its sole purpose, clearly, is to cash in on the new, big-budget feature film adaption due out later this week.
The unusually grim story begins with a young boy's visit to the ruins of an industrial complex, and the vast, barren, and polluted landscape surrounding it, home of the Once-ler (voiced by Bob Holt). In flashback, the Once-ler tells of his destruction of this former paradise, greedily exploiting the natural properties of the dandelion-like Truffula Trees, turning them into clothing for the masses, despite the protests and pleas of the Lorax (also Holt). The Once-ler got rich but at the cost of the area's delicate ecological balance.
Unlike the book, an emotionally powerful read in light of current calamitous events, the '70s television special is only partially a success. The main problem seems to be that it's basically a two-character piece (the young boy is seen only at the very beginning and very end). The Lorax is passionate but one-note: stop what you're doing or there'll be consequences. Some critics have even described him as misanthropic, but I don't see that. The Once-ler, as in the book, remains a shadowy figure; only his long green (gloved?) arms are ever visible. He dismisses the Lorax's pleas until it's too late.
So, unlike the Grinch, who undergoes a dramatic character transformation, The Lorax's characters are more didactic, despite some feeble efforts implying that, toward the end, the Once-ler is beginning to have second thoughts about his wholesale destruction of the environment.
Hawley Pratt's direction is in some ways truer to Seuss's visual designs than Jones's How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but his characters are less visually expressive and overall it's much less dynamic.
Another problem is that voice actor Bob Holt, while certainly competent as the Once-ler and the Lorax, lacks that special quality Boris Karloff brought to Grinch, or Hans Conried to Horton Hears a Who! and Dr. Seuss On the Loose. Curiously, actor Eddie Albert, at the time one of the most vocal and visible champions of environmental conservation, sings a bit at the beginning and again briefly later on, but makes no other contribution. Why didn't he narrate the entire show? I've long suspected that perhaps that was the original plan, but that somewhere along the line the decision was made to replace Albert's Once-ler and Lorax with more conventionally cartoony voices. This is just a theory, but his prominence in the credits versus his minor participation in the final show is a bit strange.
Video & Audio
Presented in 1.37:1 1080p, The Lorax is colorful and sharp, a big improvement over previous home video versions. The DTS-HD MA 1.0 English mono is perfectly fine; a 1.0 Spanish track is included, along with Spanish and English SDH subtitles.
The supplements are very disappointing. Two other Dr. Seuss TV specials are included: Pontoffel Pock, Where Are You? (1980, retitled Pontoffel Pock & His Magic Piano for home video) and The Butter Battle Book (1989, directed by Ralph Bakshi). Pointlessly, these are not only presented in standard-definition only, the transfers are surprisingly poor to boot, soft with highly noticeable combing issues. Given the disc's high SRP, why weren't these given new high-def transfers? The combined total running time would have amounted to under 75 minutes, less than the running time of most feature films.
Instead, much energy seems to have been expended on "The Lorax: The Trees! The Trees! The Voice of the Trees," a blah high-def featurette that spends as much time praising Dr. Seuss's (Theodore "Ted" Geisel) foresight as it does discussing in a very elemental way the importance of trees in our environment. The latter seems to be targeting older children but all the material at the beginning plays like a plug for the Seuss organization's charitable foundation.
I'm not holding out much hope for the new The Lorax movie (if it's anything resembling the Ron Howard/Jim Carrey How the Grinch Stole Christmas...) but the TV special, for all its problems, is still reasonably good. There's no way to justify Warner's high SRP, however, especially considering the dearth of decent extra features, and so this is a Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.