Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, gave us children’s books that have already stood the test of time. His first published book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, is celebrating its 75th anniversary currently. The Lorax, which Dr. Seuss cited as a personal favorite, was first published in 1971. A short animated version was produced as a television special a year later. But the story has remained on the shelf. Until now.
A new film version of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax hits screens today, this time in CG and 3-D. Universal’s animation division, Illumination Entertainment, is responsible for the film, coming off the success of 2010’s Despicable Me. The Lorax features many members of the creative team from Despicable Me including director Chris Renaud, and a cast including Danny DeVito, Taylor Swift, Zac Efron, Ed Helms, Rob Riggle, and Betty White. We spoke with Illumination CEO and Lorax Producer Chris Meledandri about the principles he used to adapt the four-decade-old Dr. Seuss classic into a film that would resonate with 21st-century audiences.
Love The Material
“You have to love Dr. Seuss to take on the responsibility of conveying his work in animation or any medium,” Meledandri says. “Like many people, I had the powerful experience of being raised on Dr. Seuss, then becoming a parent and revisiting him with my own children. That multigenerational experience around his work is very meaningful.” He cares about how the Dr. Seuss stories are adapted and appreciates the special place they have in the hearts of people all over the world. It also helps that in his capacity as the head of 20th Century Fox Animation, Meledandri had worked on an adaptation of Horton Hears a Who with a similar process.
Get The Character Down
Dr. Seuss books haven’t always translated well onto the screen (and, so far, according to critics, it’s not clear that The Lorax is translating all that well). The 2003 adaptation of The Cat in the Hat, starring Mike Myers, was widely panned and led Geisel’s widow Audrey, who is the guardian of the Seuss legacy, to swear off allowing a live action adaption of his work ever again. Part of the problem with a live action film approach to Seuss, Meledandri thinks, is that it inherently undermines the imaginative spirit that is so central to the works. “The idea is not to replicate exactly what is in the book,” Meledandri says. “The idea is to capture the essence of what Ted Geisel was communicating and to do it in a way that respects the integrity of the work and interprets it for an animated motion picture.”
Early on, Meledandri felt the film couldn’t go forward until the animation team was able to do justice to the character of The Lorax. “We had to ask ourselves, when we translate the two-dimensional design of the Lorax into a three-dimensional character, is that character going to be unmistakably the one that Ted Geisel drew?” Once past that initial hurdle, the team’s mandate was to extend that same dimension representation to all the characters from the barbaloots to the Once-Ler, as well as to the overall moods to mirror Geisel’s prose.
Don’t Mess With The Plot
“It’s a challenge to expand a 20-minute story into a 90-minute movie, but there is also a great opportunity,” says Meledandri. He believes that if you adapted the movie directly it would only be 20 minutes, and the original film adaptation was just that. In order to build the story, the team used three main sources: the book itself, working closely with Audrey Geisel, and the extensive writings from Theodor Geisel about the book as well as other writings about him. For Meledandri this body of material provided enough of a foundation to build out the story and develop answers to two key questions. First: What happened before the first page of the book? And second: What happens after the final page? Most of the expansion in the film takes place in those two places. In Meledandri’s opinion, they didn’t alter the story, they just augmented it.
Everyone Has An Opinion. Don’t Take it Personally
Meledandri is philosophical about the potential chasm between a classic book and its film adaptation: “When you take on a work that is beloved, you absolutely knowingly take on the risk that people are going to have very personal points of view about what the film should and shouldn’t be. It comes with the territory of doing this. There will be those who feel that it is a fulfillment of their best expectations and there will be those who will feel disappointment in what they would have envisioned an adaptation to be.” Meledandri is more than willing to take that risk in order to share Geisel’s work with a bigger, new, and contemporary audience. While adults and critics may find fault with the film, the true test will be the reactions of children and audiences.
Stay True To The Message
Geisel was originally in advertising and later became a political cartoonist. “He decided to shift from drawing political cartoons to writing for children,” Meledandri says, “because he believed that, as a political cartoonist, he was speaking to people whose minds were already formed. He realized that he could enrich young minds with a combination of his incredible imagination and substantive ideas.”
The ideas are certainly present in The Lorax. The book has stirred political controversy ever since its 1971 publication. While Geisel was a well-known liberal, it is hard to see a political agenda in most of his books. Yet in The Lorax, published at the very dawn of the modern environmental movement, political overtones clearly imbue the story. As a result, The Lorax has been decried by some as anti-business and shamelessly pro- environmentalist. In advance of the film’s release, some conservative commentators have stirred the pot again, claiming the movie is a plot to indoctrinate the minds of American youth with left-wing propaganda. (It should also be noted that some liberals find The Lorax outdated and not in keeping with their vision of how the politics of environmentalism should be formulated. And others have noted the seeming philosophical lacuna inherent in the Lorax selling Mazdas.)
“Ted Geisel was trying to make a statement about awareness and personal responsibility. He was very clear about that.” Meledandri says, “But the ideas and themes in The Lorax go beyond a love of trees. It’s also a story about the dangers of greed and the power of redemption. That’s what makes it a timeless tale.”