New lessons from the new Lorax

I was on a plane. That’s always my excuse for watching drivel. But I thought that, for research purposes, and given how often I talk about it, I should catch the remake of the Lorax. At the risk of turning a bit Žižek, here are my random thoughts on a highly-polished turd of a film that hardly deserves thought.Image

For those of us who loved the book, and the smaller number of us who enjoyed the original cartoon, with its loopy jazz-funk soundtrack, the film is an inevitable disappointment. Dr Seuss has been put into the title but much of him has been stripped from the film. The parable that makes up the book becomes a sub-plot of a boy-meets-girl that seems as though it has been scripted and storyboarded by the same computers that vomited up the graphics. The music is execrable and the animation must be exhausting even for the ADHDers. Nevertheless, some of the tweaks to the story tell us interesting things about where environmentalism and the politics of innovation have gone.

In the new film, the invention – the thneed – is the problem, not the means of production or the slippery slope of innovation. The invention springs fully formed from the air. Demand for it goes goes viral. Innovation and the eco-destruction that follows is near-instant.

Unlike in the book, the Onceler has a face. He starts off human – young, idealistic and full of good intentions. His relationship with the Lorax begins as friendly banter. It begins with just one tree, after all. The assumption is that both of their interests can be aligned. Rather than the Onceler consistently ignoring the Lorax, as in the book, there is a constant but ineffectual dialogue between them. There is an ever-present if feeble critique of Corporate Social Responsibility. One crappy song has the lines: “How bad can I be? I’m just building the economy. How bad can I be? A portion of proceeds goes to charity”. The Barbaloots and Swammy Swans are bribed with marshmallows and acquiesce rather than kicking up a fuss. The tree’s fall takes on a ritual quality, with the film acknowledging the step onto a slippery slope.

The Onceler’s once-responsible intentions get trampled once his family get involved. The innovator becomes an innovation system. Processes overtake ethics and the last tree falls soon after the first. The Onceler retreats to his castle to wallow, but we still see his face. He is no cigar-smoking monster.

The redemptive turn occurs with a seed. But whereas with the book, we are left with the seed and its possibilities, the film gives us a story of remediation. The trees are brought back to life. The Onceler’s desolate dystopia that lies outside the hermetically-sealed utopia in which boy and girl live is made natural again with the new trees and the nasty capitalist who wants to privatise the air are vanquished. We are left with a moral (“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not”) attributed not to the Lorax or the apologetic Onceler, but to Dr Seuss himself.

So the film’s cautionary tale has been buried and its corners chopped off. Some things have been added that speak to responsible innovation – the speed with which innovation can take society and the environment by surprise, the mutation of good intentions into bad outcomes, the failings of a CSR approach to engagement. The story could have been updated in interesting ways. Given the globalisation of environmental concerns over the last 40 years – global climate change has superseded local air and river pollution, but is ignored in the film – I suspect that the new Lorax tells us that US parents aren’t willing to be preached to by a cartoon.

 

UPDATE: Not really an update. More of an additional thought. Since the Lorax’s publication, there remain people who speak for the trees, but the number of people who claim, in some way, to speak for the environment, has exploded. And they speak in increasingly scientific terms. The new film’s remediation story makes it sound so easy – think local, act local. Maybe somebody needs to rewrite the book for the anthropocene. Julia Donaldson, ahem.

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About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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One Response to New lessons from the new Lorax

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on the March for Science | Responsible Innovation

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