Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Guest Review: The Lorax (2012) versus Fern Gully (1992)

by tryanmax

Those Holly-weird tree-huggers are always pushing their eco-weenie agenda onto our children. How dare they! Why can’t they leave us to trash the planet in peace? Apologies for the sarcasm, but it’s always been a point of irritation to me that conservatives have completely abandoned the cause of conservation. They share a root-word, people! I’m not saying that conservatives should start chaining themselves to giant sequoias, but knee-jerking against environmentalism looks like promoting pollution and destruction. Not good.
To better illustrate this point, let’s examine two animated films with similar themes: Fern Gully (1992) and The Lorax (2012). Both movies have been roundly criticized by the right as propagandizing to children by both pushing environmentalism and criticizing capitalism. But is this a fair assessment? In regards to Fern Gully, I say unequivocally, “yes.” But in regards to The Lorax, I think conservatives have leapt without looking.

First, a very brief synopsis of each:

Fern Gully is about a tribe of rainforest-dwelling fairies whose giant tree-home is threatened by a logging operation. The loggers are somehow being controlled by an ancient spirit of carbon emissions and petroleum byproduct. One fairy shrinks one of the loggers to her size so he can learn about the wonder and beauty of the blah, blah, Zzzzzzzzzz… Oops! I bored myself to sleep. Basically, it’s Avatar but it came first. Oh, and if the message that “humans are bad” isn’t driven home strongly enough, bat-Robin Williams raps about how evil they are.

The Lorax tells about a young boy living in a hyper-developed city who wants to find a real tree to impress a girl. To do so, he must find the Once-ler, who will tell him the tale of the short-sighted industrialist responsible for wiping out the Truffla trees that once covered the now barren and polluted land surrounding the town. At first the boy is impatient, wanting only to get his tree. But as the story unfolds, both come to realize the need to conserve the resources they depend upon.
I clearly have no love for Fern Gully. As propaganda, it’s about as subtle as a Molotov cocktail. It’s only saving grace is that its formulaic predictability works to undermine the intended message. Nature is worth protecting because it is magical and sacred and pollution is cast as opposing black magic. Responsibility is even shifted onto a giant black smoke monster who dupes the unwitting humans. At the end of the day, the message is simply to direct your faith/love/whatever toward the correct deity. This is pure emotionalism: pollution makes baby fairies cry.

While I’m poking at Fern Gully, I may as well point out its other flaws. This film traffics in the classic racist-liberal pairing of white man’s burden and the noble savage. The fairies are helpless to save themselves, despite possessing ancient wisdom and awesome magic, without the help of an obviously dimwitted youth of European descent. Plus, the film has aged terribly, not that timelessness is to be expected of every film. Stupid hairdos and ridiculous slang are forgivable, but having Mork from Ork rap should’ve been an obvious blunder at the time.
Just as obvious, I think better of The Lorax while admitting that it is hyperbolic in ways. However, that is how it achieves its impact, by extending real attitudes and actions to a satirical level. That Dr. Seuss imagined ends that remain fantastic to this day is impressive. Electronic trees and bottled air are ideas meant to be so absurd (for now) that everyone can’t help but agree about their badness. All can come together in the name of preventing something that likely wouldn’t happen anyway. Even the titular Lorax backs away from his absolutist cut-no-tree position.
However, conservatives don’t seem to be in on the joke. Reacting seriously to these absurd ideas, calling them indictments of industry or capitalism, ends up sounding defensive of wanton waste and pollution. Yet that is exactly how a lot of conservatives have reacted. They defend the obvious villain in the film and wonder why they are regarded as villains. Worse, they criticize the character who realizes the error of his material wastefulness which stands at odds with the usual conservative criticism of fiscal wastefulness. And if that weren’t enough, they equate The Lorax, a comparatively subtle fable, with Fern Gully which has even been dismissed by environmentalists as a blunt fairytale. In other words, conservatives come off as evil idiots.
It also doesn’t help that The Lorax is a pretty decent film in its own right. Dr. Seuss’ visual and narrative style is paired with catchy, Broadway-esque musical numbers. This bodes well for the potential longevity of the film, making it an even worse target for ridicule. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that conservatives should go soft on a film just because its production values are high. Unlike the ham-fisted, eco-magical Fern Gully, The Lorax ultimately finds a middle ground between conservation and modernity. Conservatives would do better to actually consider the content of a film before criticizing it.


KRS said...

Andrew - Like you, I despised Fern Gully even back when it came out, but I'm of two minds on the 2012 Lorax. On the one hand, I was engaged by the broader script with more characters and sub plots. But, I felt like it lost some ineffable quality that comes with Suess tales. I can't really put my finger on it - perhaps it's the fact that Suess doesn't go into depth with his characters as they are children's books. There's no pleasing me.

I remember the TV special that came out in the early seventies as leaving me very depressed and not at all motivated to do anything. The story really goes too far. The picture of things is that everything is destroyed and it is just not believable that one person caring is going to revive the world. So why try? The movie, in contrast, shows the entire town turning around and the community embracing values above their own comfort. Things are different, those with changed hearts have the power to act, so it is more hopeful.

One thing I never could figure out - why didn't the Once-ler go ahead and plant the blasted seed and work to fix the damage he caused? Instead the lazy bum lives in self-imposed exile on a wasted landscape and waits for a better person to make things right. Jerk!

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Thanks for the excellent article. I despise Fern Gully precisely because it is propaganda... and the bad hair. I was much less bothered by The Lorax. Yeah, it has an environmental message, but it never struck me as a liberal environmental message -- sounded like conserve with reason to me.

KRS said...

Tryanmax - sorry I called you Andrew! I'm old and I get brain cramps.

I'll be more careful to check authorship.

Anonymous said...

tryanmax -

I mentioned to Andrew once that if Avatar stole from FernGully, then FernGully stole from Ernest Goes to Camp!

I'm being tongue in cheek here but this is Ernest's synopsis:

...Meanwhile, an evil mining corporation run by the ruthless Sherman Krader (John Vernon) has its sights on Kikakee, a site rich with the fictional mineral petrocite. However, Chief St. Cloud refuses to sell. Krader manipulates Ernest, one of the few people who speaks the chief's language, into convincing St. Cloud to sign away the land, believing it to be a conservation petition...

See what I mean? :-)

I haven't seen The Lorax but I remember seeing FernGully in the theater during one of those "Summer Kids Movies!" things. (Come on, i was 9!) It didn't leave much of an impression and I didn't even remember Robin Williams was in it till you mentioned it.

As per usual, conservatives don't dig deep enough and as someone in the middle - forever, it seems - I'll admit the unblinking defense of capitalism (a system of which I am a fan) can come off as "F--- the environment!" Not all the time, of course.

P.S. Andrew let you use an animated gif? :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I did, to see how it would work. Unfortunately, it eats a lot of space.

Anonymous said...

I figured as much. Same goes for embedded YouTube clips.

AndrewPrice said...

Yeah. Those things can be huge.

BTW, doesn't the guy in the last frame look like the superhero tailor from The Incredibles?

tryanmax said...

KRS, no worries. My memory of the 70s Lorax cartoon is vague, but I seem to recall the Lorax himself being a steadfast grump. This version actually has a range of emotions. As for the rest, like I said in the review, hyperbole is sorta how The Lorax works--and interestingly, how Fern Gully fails to work. That's probably worth examining further. I think the reason the Once-ler fails to plant the tree himself is that he is crippled by guilt. It's an understated yet important facet of the story as it explores various reactions to conservation.

tryanmax said...

Scott, LOL! It's true. I saw Ernest Goes to Camp so many times at, well, camp that I'm pretty much desensitized to all but Jim Varney's antics.

Many thanks to Andrew for allowing the use of the GIF. I just couldn't not include the silly "feel its pain" reference. It pretty much sums up environmentalism in the 90s.

Anthony said...

Ferngully was just a bad movie. Lame characters, lame action, crappy visuals. The Lorax was really fun to watch ('That's a woman!?') and the timing was right (it had been a while since a good kids' movie had hit).

Attacking a movie for its politics is a waste of time since most moviegoers don't care about the subtext so long as the movie delivers the goods (Avatar and the Nolan Batman movies no doubt drew many of the same eyeballs).

The only bigger waste of time is praising a movie for its politics which makes people think that you are trying to talk them into a sermon rather than convince them to see an entertaining movie.

tryanmax said...

Anthony, all good points, and I tend to agree. That said, politics shouldn't be hands-off to film either. After all, these are our shared cultural references. (Sorry Tea Partiers, but most people haven't read The Fountainhead.) If you can use these references to back a point you are already making, by all means. That's how you tap into the zeitgeist and persuade people that your ideas are with it.

KRS said...

I actually spent a large part of my career in environmental research, going back to the eighties.

In my experience, I have found it easy to classify environmentalists by two stereotypes: the rational enviro and the advocate. The rational environmentalist genuinely looks for the scientifically sound approaches and solutions while the advocate seems to be driven by unchecked idealism.

And, oh, the advocates...

In the early days, the apocalyptic arguments were, as in the Lorax tales, fantasical. They were set as morality tales much like fairy tales. That's why you could slop from global cooling into global warning without breaking a sweat. But in the late seventies and eighties, the advocates made a conscious decision to push images of impending global catastrophe in order to fuel civil action.

By contrast, the rational environmentalist follows the science and expects to be proven wrong more often than right. The rational enviro, for example, looks at curbside recycling and asks whether having a second fleet of garbage trucks (that's truly what they are) consuming ores and minerals to be built, toxic metals for their batteries, burning fossil fuels and oils, putting out emissions and waste products like worn tires and parts (all are much more difficult wastestreams to manage than solid waste) is really a better choice than a sanitary landfill.
I had a lot of arguments with associates back then because I feared that unfounded apocalyptic argument would diminish the credibility of environmental research. What I didn't expect is that these associates of mine would talk themselves into actually believing what they had previously known to be crap, inexplicably using the veneer of modern “science” – as was exposed in the climategate email fraud of a few years back.

On the other hand, the rational enviros I have known maintained their critical perspectives. Interestingly, they are all political conservatives.

I should emphasize that these are anecdotal observations.

Ben L. Kemer said...

KRS, couldn't have said it better. Not being afraid of the possibility that your idea may not be correct or in need of revision is exactly what the scientific method is all about. It sometimes feels like extreme environmentalism runs the reverse of the scientific method at times.

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