On Friday, March 2, Universal Pictures released The Lorax, a movie version of the Dr. Seuss book, and it promptly raked in $70 million. That's the strongest opening of any film this year, more than tripling its closest competition for the weekend.
Part of the reason is its family-friendly billing. Clean, family-oriented movies sell more tickets, and The Lorax-rated PG for mild language-has no vampires, no half-naked teens, and a minimum of cursing. Instead it seems to offer an upbeat moral about the value of nature with eye-popping color and endearing creatures: cuddly Brown Bar-ba-loots, Humming-fish, and the fuzzy, orange Lorax himself.
As for casting, Danny DeVito's gruff voicing of the Lorax along with Ed Helms' (The Office) buffoonery as the Once-ler make for a humorous, if slightly ironic, rendering. Beyond them, a new hero and a new storyline add to the original tale: Jake (Zac Efron), a 12-year-old boy who is twitter-pated by his tree-loving neighbor, Audry (Taylor Swift), sets out to find a real, live tree and win her heart. Which leads him to the Once-ler's home and a quest for the last Truffala seed to bring his entire fake/plastic town of Thneedville (à la Pleasantville) back to life. Near the final scenes, the townsfolk band together and sing joyfully of their new tree, "Let it grow!" Who wouldn't want to join right in?
Apparently, big bad businessmen and the consumers who love them. At the heart of the movie is an anti-business scene in which the Once-ler, formerly friends with the Lorax, now sells him out and clear-cuts the land to "shake that bottom-line." He's portrayed as a sweet, happy-go-lucky guy who is corrupted by his desire for money and, as such, destroys all the natural beauty around him. While the content of Dr. Seuss' book remains intact here-it was a product of the earth-conscious 1970s, after all-the context in which the movie appears today is quite different.
The environmental debate has only become hotter, while the American public-school classroom has become more deeply ideological. A recent article in The New York Times relates how a group of fourth-graders apparently shamed Universal Studios (via a class-made video and a petition signed by over 50,000 people) into including action points on the website for kids to "heal the earth" from "pollution, global warming, oil spills, deforestation, and loss of animal habitat." Universal then pulled in the environmental group Conservation International to rebuild the Lorax website and help kids take their new-found love of nature into the brave new world of environmental politics.
One other political connection seems grossly out of place in this story. Since 1997, Random House and Dr. Seuss Enterprises have worked closely with the National Education Association (NEA) for their Read Across America Day, celebrated each year on Dr. Seuss' birthday: March 2. No coincidence then that the same date was chosen for the movie's release.
The NEA, however, is far more than just a reading advocacy group. It's one of the Democratic Party's biggest donors, was heavily involved in the labor disputes in Wisconsin and Ohio last year, and recently came out in support of Obamacare, which it claims as an "education issue." In fact, the NEA is quite open about its desire to influence political outcomes as well as indoctrinate young people. The weekend The Lorax opened, it held a conference in Washington, D.C. that included a seminar on how teachers should use students in "organizing and activism."
With book publishers, book sellers, app makers, PBS Kids, and PBS affiliates (i.e., Cat in the Hat TV shows) all joining the rally for the Lorax's cause, the NEA has received a boost to continue throwing its weight around in the political arena and the classroom.