As I’m sure you’ve already noticed (unless you’re just back from a silent meditation retreat in the Thai jungle or something), there is a film version of Dr. Seuss’ beloved children’s classic "The Lorax" coming out later this week, and it’s being blanket-marketed and cross-promoted with an intensity rarely seen outside a Disney venture.
The book itself, of course, is particularly treasured in ecologically minded circles. The Lorax’s doomed attempt to stop the clearcutting of Truffula trees being perpetrated by the business-obsessed Once-ler has long been understood as a sort of preschool take on "Silent Spring" – a foundational text in modern environmentalism.
So imagine the greenminded masses’ surprise to find – as anyone watching an Oscar telecast or any other high-profile TV show surely has by now – that in preparation for his big-screen debut, the Lorax is shilling for Mazda. In the ad, a Mazda CX-5 purrs smoothly through groves of lush Truffulas, as Bar-ba-loots and Humming-fish look on approvingly. “Who received the only Truffula Tree Certified Seal of Approval?” the voice-over asks. And those greenminded masses, hearing the clang of Pavlov’s bell loud and clear, have taken to the Internet within minutes to register their disgust.
“Really?!” one blogger’s headline exclaimed. “WTF?!” read another. An analysis at Mother Jones ran under the headline, “The Lorax: Blowing Smogulous Smoke.” Adweek’s summary was entitled, “Environmentalists Seethe as the Lorax Speaks for Mazda.”
And on the surface, I suppose, who could blame them for their outrage? The Lorax – defender of all that is green and pristine against the forces of smogulous, axe-hacking big industry – is now a spokescreature for SUVs, of all things? Really?! It’s enough to move any long-time fan of good ole Dr. Seuss to multiple punctuation marks.
A couple of wrinkles appear, though, even at the surface of things. While the Mazda CX-5 does indeed call itself an SUV, for example, it appears to do so mainly to appeal to drivers of older, bigger SUVs. Technically speaking, an SUV is a big passenger cab riding on a truck chassis; the CX-5, like all crossovers, sits on a large car’s chassis. It’s a big vehicle by comparison to a Prius or Nissan Leaf, sure, but its apparent target market would consider it a small and hyper-efficient vehicle compared to what they’re currently driving. There’s no way Mazda itself mislabeled the thing an SUV to appeal to drivers of smaller greener cars, so they must’ve done it to try to coax SUV drivers into something a little less hefty and wasteful. And so if a Prius is good enough as a badge of green honor for the likes of Leo DiCaprio and Al Gore, then there’s a plausible argument to be made that a CX-5 is the suburban soccer-mom equivalent.
Another wrinkle: the Mazda CX-5 is but one of dozens of mass-market products being sold using the Lorax’s whiskered visage. The Lorax is on the waistband of disposable Seventh Generation diapers. He’s helping IHOP sell whole wheat Truffula Chip Pancakes, crowned in a number of Big Agriculture’s finest processed corn derivatives. Guests at Hilton’s DoubleTree hotels can enter to win a Lorax-branded, eco-themed vacation to Costa Rica. (I’ve been to Costa Rica. It’s a stunning ecological treasure, to be sure, but there’s nothing about getting there or being there that’s any more eco-friendly than a package resort in the Dominican Republic.)
All told, "The Lorax" arrives in theaters accompanied by nearly 70 product tie-ins. It’s as cross-marketed and multiplatformed and monetized as a Transformer or Dora the Explorer. If there’s a bottomlessly greedy Once-ler in this picture, it isn’t Mazda – it’s Universal Pictures and Audrey Geisel, Ted “Dr. Seuss” Geisel’s widow, who’s apparently never met a vaguely eco-themed corporate product she didn’t want to hitch to her husband’s legacy. (And let’s be honest, there was so little integrity and charm left in the whole Seuss brand after Mike Myers got through with "The Cat in the Hat," who could blame her for cashing out on whatever remained?)
And again, as with the CX-5, the frame of reference is important. "The Lorax," for all its beloved touchstoniness, is not some sacred homespun relic of a less commercial time. It’s the flagbearer of a corporate franchise, Dr. Seuss Inc., so to speak – a machine that sells not just vast piles of books but polymer-stuffed toys and plastic gewgaws and logoed kids’ clothes, all of it courtesy of the very best in petrochemicals and the very cheapest in overseas labor.
And so, in this context – if, that is, you accept the idea that a cartoon movie’s protagonist is inevitably a shill for a range of tie-in merchandise – isn’t the Lorax shilling for the greenest stuff ever tied into a movie? It’s not McDonald’s and Chef Boy-ar-dee, it’s Whole Foods and Seventh Generation and IHOP. Does the fact of the whole wheat in the pancakes detract one whit from the intrinsic ungreenness of candy-sprinkles and Rooty Tooty Bar-Ba-Looty Blueberry Cone Cake (I kid you not) and the big-box parking lots where a great many IHOPs are located? Of course not. But it would be ludicrous, really, to expect Universal Pictures and Big Seuss to be on the vanguard of this green stuff, no matter how much you cherish the good doctor’s original story of ecological devastation.
Is this blasphemy? Is it – horror of horrors – greenwashing? Perhaps. But if it is, then so is Whole Foods itself. And so are fuel-efficiency standards. So is anything with the brand recognition and corporate reach to ever carry a movie franchise.
If you’re outraged, I’d argue it’s not the Lorax – it’s you. You misunderstood who was actually responsible for delivering that misanthropic treehugger to your book shelf in the first place. Dr. Seuss created the character, sure, and by all reports he intended the book to be a ferocious critique of the whole industrial order. But the only reason you ever saw it is the same reason I did and the same reason my 7-year-old daughter’s already anticipating the movie so giddily I may cave in and take her even though, by the sound of it, the movie’s story shares little in common with the book other than the name.
We share the Lorax as a cultural reference because it is, like a big automaker or a multinational hawker of pancakes, ubiquitous. The reason we’re all so charged up about this is because "The Lorax" – book, movie, Mazda ad and all – is a green-tinged wing of the entertainment industrial complex, nothing more. Asking him to speak for the trees outside the pages of that first treasured story is asking him to do something he’s simply incapable of doing.
Go see the movie, or don’t. Drive your new Mazda crossover or walk there. But there’s really no call for taking the whole thing so personally.
To speak for the trees 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.
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