Movies always have monkeyed around with their source material -- a 1930 version of "Moby Dick" had Ahab kill the whale and return home to his girlfriend -- but it's hard to remember one that actually apologized before the fact for what it was about to do.
The new 3-D animated "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" begins with that fuzzy orange creature, amiably voiced by Danny DeVito, stepping out in front of a theater curtain to announce "there's more to this story than what's on the page." You have been warned.
Although it keeps intact the ecological message of one of the original tree-hugger books, first published in 1971, this movie version adds a whole lot of other stuff, most of it not very good and not in keeping with the spirit of the Seuss original.
This story of a world without trees and how a young boy might bring them back called out for the touch of Japan's lyrical Hayao Miyazaki, very much an ardent environmentalist himself, but what it got instead was the team behind the ersatz and exhausting "Despicable Me."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, March 03, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Lorax": The review of "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" in the March 2 Calendar section said that the film's main character, Ted, lives in a town called Sneedville. The town is Thneedville.
Directed by Chris Renaud and written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio for Illumination Entertainment's Chris Meledandri, this version of "The Lorax" certainly creates a lively and colorful -- some would say too colorful -- visual landscape, with special attention being paid to the dazzling, cotton-candy-topped Truffula trees.
But to expand Seuss' slim volume to theatrical feature length, a whole lot of plot and heaping handfuls of characters needed to be invented. Not only are these people unpleasant for the most part, but the new aspects of the story are forced, frenetic and so far from the gentle but pointed original that the film's musical riff from the "Mission: Impossible" theme does not sound out of place.
Though he is present in a quiet, nameless way in the book, the boy Ted (named here for Theodor Geisel, Seuss' real name, and voiced by Zac Efron) is portrayed as 12 going on 25, a miniature adult who uses breath freshener spray and has the wiseacre attitude of a Las Vegas lounge lizard.
This irritating young man is infatuated with a high-school-age older woman named Audrey (singer Taylor Swift). She's in turn taken with the notion of trees, real trees. The town these two live in, Sneedville, has only the plastic variety, which means that residents have to buy their air from the tiny but evil O'Hare (Rob Riggle), who keeps the entire city under constant surveillance.
Desperate to impress Audrey, Ted determines to find a tree, but the only person who seems to have a clue about them is Ted's grandmother Grammy Norma (the indefatigable Betty White).
Go outside of town, she tells him, to where the Once-ler lives. He can tell you what you need to know.
Once the Once-ler (Ed Helms) is tracked down amid a desolate, godforsaken valley and begins to tell his story, "The Lorax" sticks close to the original for as long as it can.
Back when he was a youth, the Once-ler relates in flashback how he came to this place when it was thick with Truffula trees and cheerful creatures like Bar-ba-loots and Humming-Fish. (As the minions were in "Despicable Me," these are the most entertaining beings in the film.)
The Once-ler found the best material for his new invention, the Thneed, an all-purpose object everyone needs, in the tufts of those trees.
But once he cut one down, a strange creature appeared from inside the stump, with huge yellow eyebrows and a mustache like Yosemite Sam. "I am the Lorax," he said, not one to waste a dramatic opportunity. "I speak for the trees."
The Lorax might have been speaking, but the Once-ler wasn't listening. He cut down trees without number, invited his repulsive family to come work for him, and soon became such a baron of industry he had a "Too Big to Fail" sign on his wall. Determined to do what was best for his company, he wrecked the environment without a second thought. "Who cares if a few trees are dying?" he said. "This is all so gratifying."
The Once-ler, of course, sings a different tune once all the trees are gone and his valley looks like the far side of the moon. This inspires Ted to try to do better, which leads to a chase so loud and bouncy it threatens to wear us out.
By the time a cheerful "Let It Grow" song tries to rescue the film at its close, the original Lorax has left the building and is not coming back.
MPAA rating: PG for brief, mild language
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: In general release