Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Lorax (review)

I. Hate. Musicals.

For me there are only two musicals: Singing In The Rain (1952) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). While this may be due to the fact that I haven't seen all that many musicals, every time I try to watch more I see that musicals just aren't made for me. I just wanted to plant that seed before digging into my review of The Lorax, an animated musical from the director duo who brought us Despicable Me two years ago.

Was The Lorax good enough to overcome my general distaste for musicals? No, not really; but there is something in it that I think is worth talking about. So let's get right into it.

What did I like about The Lorax? As Todd McGowan once told me, it turns a story about environmentalism into a critique of capitalism.* And this critique does have its moments, to be sure! The film starts off with a great opening musical number depicting the fetishistic disavowal necessary to live in Thneedville (a hyper-capitalist society which is so polluted the citizens have to purchase filtered air): "In Thneedville/We don't want to know/Where the smog and trash/And chemicals go."

Then later in the film, two salesmen try to pitch the idea of bottling air in small, personal-sized bottles to Mr. O'Hare (of O'Hare Air) saying, "Our research shows that people will buy anything if you put it in a plastic bottle!" While on the surface this is a clear allusion to the absurdity of buying bottled water, it also points to a truth about objet a: the reason we buy bottled water or a coke or something isn't because we want to drink it, but because of the packaging, because there is something preventing our consumption. We desire not because of the object itself, but because of the barrier to obtaining the object.

So what's the problem then? The problem isn't (only) that the critique of capitalism falls short, that it doesn't critique enough, but that the film's proposed solution to the excesses of capitalism in fact justifies more (over)production, more excess.** (WARNING: If you care about having the end of movies spoiled you should stop reading now, skip down to the end of the review to see the score I gave the movie if you want, and go back to whatever you were doing before reading this review.) At the end of the movie, the Once-ler (who basically created this hyper-capitalist society, but who now regrets his actions) tells Ted (the protagonist), "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better... it's not." Ted then proceeds to plant the very last truffula seed.

Great, right? We have to change capitalism to make it better! No. The movie says that all we have to do is compensate for capitalism's excesses; or, in the movie's terms, if capitalism needs to cut down all the truffula trees then all we have to do is plant more. How is the obscenity of this solution not apparent to the filmmakers? This is the equivalent of saying, "It's okay that uncountable amounts of Congolese die to harvest the materials to make our laptops and cellphones: all we need to do is make sure that more Congolese are born to take their place!" I love the quote from the Once-ler, but Ted's (and the world's) reaction needs to be radically different.

That said, I think the movie still has some value as a critique of capitalism, and some of the jokes were genuinely funny. For this reason I give 2 out of 5 beers to The Lorax for having its moments but not being enough to overcome my hatred for musicals (as far as I can tell from behind my biased glasses this movie wouldn't be very enjoyable even for someone who liked musicals). Furthermore, I (cringe to) give it 2 out of 5 Slavojs for shifting the focus of the original story from environmentalism to capitalism and getting parts of the critique of capitalism right.




*Just realized this might not be as obvious an improvement to everyone, so I thought I'd explain my position. Shifting the focus of the critique from environmentalism to capitalism is important because capitalism appears (to me) closer to the root cause of our ecological problems.

**The inspiration for this critique of The Lorax came from reading Slavoj Zizek's Violence (2008), especially the chapter on "SOS Violence".

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