Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Lorax Teaches The Wrong Lessons

I had the misfortune of watching The Lorax (2012) the other day. In particular, I found myself shaking my head at the lessons it imparts. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but it still annoyed me. What lessons? Read on...

Throughout my life, I’ve discovered something interesting about the human race: we are a bell curve in all things. I’ve seen this over and over in every field I’ve encountered. I’ve seen it in early adopter rates, grade distribution, IQ distribution, and even advertising theories on how to influence the public. It’s everywhere. And where it has been most interesting to me is in the discovery that the human race can be broken into three groups when it comes to societal benefit, for lack of a better phrase. The theory works like this:
● 10% of the human population are good people who drive humanity for the better. The most obvious example of these people are inventors, artists, writers, and others who provide things that enrich or improve other people’s lives. But this category isn’t limited to those people. It also includes people who start businesses, early adapters, the rare teachers who inspire their students, and even just average people who become mentors to others and make the world a better place. Big or small makes no difference, these are just people who make things better.

● At the other end, 10% of the human population are malicious people who do bad things. Interestingly, only some of these people realize that they are villains. The majority of these people think of themselves as the good 10%, even though their instincts are malicious and their actions and ideas are highly destructive. You can see an example of this, believe it or not, with Hitler. If you ever see interviews of his staff, you will be shocked to learn that Hitler genuinely thought he was the good guy. You see this sometimes with serial killers too, who think they are doing God’s work, with busy-bodies who delude themselves that their desires to control others come from their “deep sense of caring” about others, and with people who just get off on causing problems.

● The other 80% of the human population are essentially sheep. They do what they are told by the people they recognize as authority figures. Interestingly, however, these people often think of themselves as independent thinkers who “make up their own minds,” and they react very poorly to any suggestion to the contrary, even though they never actually think for themselves... as an aside, these people are the reason so much advertising simultaneously combines the ideas of keeping up with the Jones while ridiculously claiming that buying certain mass-produced products is only for “people who think for themselves.” Disturbingly, these people have a hard time spotting the difference between the good and bad 10%ers and will just as slavishly follow a vicious negative 10%er as they would a good 10%er if they come to see them as the authority.
So what does this have to do with The Lorax? Well, The Lorax very clearly demonstrates these groups and how they work. Unfortunately, it presents the wrong lessons in doing so.

The Lorax is the story of a 12 year old Ted Wiggins. Wiggins lives in a walled city made of plastic and metal. It contains no trees. The reason it doesn’t have trees is that the mayor, Aloysius O’Hare, sells bottled oxygen. He knows that trees provide oxygen for free, so he works hard to make sure there are none in the city. What destroyed the trees originally was a man called Once-ler. He was an entrepreneur who cut down the trees to make his product. In so doing, he ignored the objections of the Lorax, which was a being who protects the trees. Once-ler didn’t intend to cut down all the trees and he came to realize his mistake, but he did it nevertheless... all except for one seed. He gives that seed to Ted, who tries to plant it.
As Ted tries to plant the seed, the mayor tries to stop him. The mayor even warns the people that what Ted is trying to do is dangerous because trees produce sap and other pollutants. Upon hearing this, the public turns on Ted and essentially forms a lynch mob. But then Ted denies the charge and one of the locals decides that Ted is right. He states his support for Ted. Suddenly, the mob declares Ted to be right and turns on the mayor. The story ends happily.

Here’s are the problems.

First, this film clearly breaks into the three groups. Ted is a good 10%er who wants to make the world better. He sees a way to improve it and sets out to do so. The mayor is a bad 10%er. He knows he’s the villain and he thinks nothing of using evil means to get what he wants, which is profit and control. Once-ler is also a bad 10%er, though he is one who doesn’t understand his own evil. He thought he was the good guy, making use of the trees in a way he thought was responsible to produce a product that people wanted and employ people who needed jobs. It was only later that he learned his mistake. Finally, the public are exactly what the 80% are like: fickle, stupid, and mindless followers of whomever they see as the authority figure in their lives.

It is interesting to see a film break down these groups so clearly. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t know what to do from there. Thus, for example, rather than pointing out that Once-ler is a villain, it essentially sells him as a victim. It shows him suffering at “the mistake” he made and being imprisoned for what he has done. It also let’s him protest over and over that he never intended to kill all the trees, without ever requiring him to explain why he ignored the obvious warning signs and took no care to prevent the problem that was so obvious. In effect, it removes his villainy and makes him a helpless victim of a mistake and thereby forgives his villainy without true remorse or even understanding. This teaches the wrong lesson as it eliminates the element of personal responsibility so long as you had good intentions. But good intentions are not and should never be considered an inoculant to criminal or evil or immoral or stupid behavior.
Compounding this, the film then sells the audience the standard comfortable view of evil through the mayor. Essentially, the film tells the audience that evil is easy to spot because it knows it is evil and it knows that it’s actions are wrong. This is absolutely the wrong lesson to teach. Basically, rather than teaching kids that you need to watch all of your actions regardless of your intent, lest you act in an evil or rotten manner, the film sends the message: “Don’t worry, evil is obvious and unless you set out to be evil, you’ll be fine.”

Finally, you have the 80%ers. This is the truly obnoxious message. These people mindlessly followed the mayor for years. Once someone pointed out his crime, they absolutely failed to rationally assess the claim and to decide if they had been mistaken in supporting him. Instead, they turned into a lynch mob, determined to silence the dissident. This failure should have been highlighted in a major way to the audience. But the film didn’t do that. To the contrary, it excused the 80% by having them switch sides moments later when the worker announced that he had decided to back Ted.
But this represents yet another horrible lesson. Whether Ted was right or not, the 80%ers undertook no independent investigation. They never thought through what he said, looked at his claim or even demanded answers. They simply switched sides because they felt the herd had changed horses when the workman announced his decision to switch his support. This is a horrible lesson. The 80%ers need to be taught to conduct an actual analysis, not merely to follow whomever they see as the most authoritative person at the time. For all they know, Ted is an even bigger villain or fool and they are about to make things much worse. They don’t know because they never stopped to investigate. And the film rewarded this kind of false reasoning by letting audience know that Ted is right. Essentially, the message remains: just make sure you follow the nicer guy, when it should be to truly think for yourself for once. That’s how Hitlers get made, because evil, which is never bounded by reality or reason, makes much better promises.

This is my problem with this film. The film correctly identifies these groups but then acts as a sedative to calm the 80% into thinking that evil will be easy to spot and fixing evil is as easy as watching to see whom the crowd prefers. These are ridiculous messages to send.



Kit said...

An interesting way of looking at the film. 10-80-10.

From what I know in the original cartoon and book it was a character study of the Once-ler. Its purpose was to show that anyone can fall. Any of us could be the Once-ler if we let our greed take control of us. It's a cautionary tale.

To quote G.K. Chesterton, "whatever primary and far-reaching moral dangers affect any man, affect all men. All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired."

It ends with the Once-ler giving Ted (who is unnamed in the original) the seed. The mayor was something created for the movie and the movie alone, as was the whole sub-plot with Ted… and everything except the Once-ler telling Ted his backstory.

And I don't think the Once-ler's face was ever seen.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Nice addition to the discussion!

You can definitely tell that the story of Ted and the mayor have been added for the film because it feels like two completely different stories. And if the purpose of the original is to warn that even good people can fail if they give in to temptation, then that is certainly an excellent warning.

Unfortunately, the way the film plays, that's not really the message. The film message is ultimately that business is evil and greedy and seeks to enslave the public. The message I see, however, is more insidious. And while I doubt the filmmakers grasped the 80-10-10 idea or intended any message related to it, it does reinforce the ideas that keep the 80%ers from realizing that they need to be smarter and actually start thinking independently.

Kit said...

I think the handling of the 80-10-10 idea came from extreme laziness on the part of the writers.

"Huh, we've written ourselves into a corner here. How do we get the mob to join Ted?"
"How about we have one worker dude come out in support of him and then the rest of the mob immediately switches sides?"
"Better than anything I've got. Let's go with it!"

Kit said...

By the way, the movie's song "How Bad Can I Be", which I have to admit is pretty catchy in a "will never leave your head"-kinda way no matter how much you want it to, is full of attacks on big business for claiming it is not really that bad because it helps the economy and "A portion of proceeds goes to charity" and other attacks on consumerism.

Meanwhile, the movie had a massive tie-in marketing campaign, including a advertisements for "Lorax-approved"products… including an SUV produced by Mazda.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Marx or Lennon or one of those guys once said that capitalists would sell him the guns he would use to destroy them. History has proven him right in that regard. In any event, a little (lot) of hypocrisy is nothing new for liberal Hollywood.

On the way the 80% shift over, I don't doubt that you are right. It strikes me that they don't grasp the messages they are sending at all in that regard and that probably just seemed like an easy, cliched way out of the dilemma. There was little to no actual thought put into this film that I could see -- just a standard anti-capitalism message combined with an overly simplistic environmentalist message ("don't destroy every last tree!").

As I said above, I suspect the 80-10-10 thing was a total accident and they don't even realize what they've stumbled upon. They certainly didn't exploit it.

Kit said...


The hypocrisy thing was interesting because liberals were complaining about it. In fact, liberals disliked the movie as a whole for being too clich├ęd.

One great take on it is the (liberal) Nostalgia Critic's' video review. He eviscerates it for butchering the original's message and dumbing it down for mass audiences.
(26min long)

Jason said...

It’s not the first time a movie version of Dr. Seuss’ work has poorly depicted the masses. In the Jim Carrey headliner The Grinch, it made the Whos into a materialistic and consumer-driven bunch that had to be taught the Christmas spirit by Cindy Lou, instead of the gentle townsfolk from the book and animated special that celebrated Christmas even without the bells and whistles.

I did like the NC joke that the Once-ler in the movie was Bill Watterson.

Also, the mayor selling oxygen in cans kept me thinking of Spaceballs. Did the movie’s writers know about this?

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I'll check it out. There is much to criticize about this film, and I'm not surprised that even liberals hated it. The message is so over-the-top that it basically feels like a pure fantasy and I don't think anyone could be swayed by it.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, You're right about the Jim Carrey Grinch. That movie was really nasty about the public as well. I guess we know what Hollywood thinks of us, don't we? Actually, I think it goes back to Hollywood not knowing how to do good writing, so they just set up extremes to make it easy for the audience to understand who you are supposed to like and to maximize the impact of the change from deepest despair to highest high.

As for ripping off Spaceballs, I suspect these writers were very, very lazy and didn't really care. There were many things that felt like rip offs to me throughout the film.

Kit said...

The Nostalgia Critic also went after the remakes of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Cat in the Hat.

Grinch: LINK
It is almost entirely in rhyme.

Cat in the Hat: LINK

Interestingly, he says Jim Carrey is better in the Grinch than Mike Myers was in Cat in the Hat. It seems he could find redeeming qualities in Grinch and Lorax but none in Cat in the Hat.

Kit said...

I should note the redeeming qualities he found in both movies were few in number but he seemed to acknowledge more in them than in Cat in the Hat.

Anthony said...

I got the liberal messages, but I thought the Lorax was competent family entertainment. Nothing overtly offensive (which is more than the Cat in the Hat could say), pleasant visuals (which came at the expense of fidelity to the source material) and Danny Devito was born to play the role of Lorax. Couple those things with great timing and its little wonder that it did really well and is a favorite of kids.

The Lorax is kind of like Avatar for kids in that it never forgets to entertain. I suspect that in commercial art people will forgive or ignore silly, lazy or even odious messages but they won't forgive boredom.

Koshcat said...

Interesting analysis. I just thought it was a bad movie. Even my kids don't care to watch it again. It was so boring.

The original story always bothered me as well because that just isn't how a company works with a scarce but critical ingredient. The pollution message is fine because many people and companies have done this in the past. However, I don't think very many companies manufactured themselves out of business. In general, there also isn't a final "thunk" and then the business shuts down. Generally, it gets harder to find the ingredient making the cost of the thneed go up leading to fewer sales, etc. etc. Basically it teaches kids the exact opposite of how economics works.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I thought both the Grinch and the Cat were borderline offensive.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I thought the film was rather dull, but your opinions can obviously vary. To me, the problem isn't a left-right message so much as it is an "you are right to act, even violently, on unfounded, unsupported and uninvestigated opinion so long as you like the person suggesting the course of action." To me, that's absolutely the wrong message to be sending. We should be teaching people to genuinely think independently, not patting them on the head for following the herd and they pretending that makes them independent thinkers.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Koshcat. I've seen this theory play out so often that I have come to believe it, and I find it highly predictive of a good deal of individual behavior.

You are 100% right about the faulty economics lesson. This story teaches a completely backward version of economics and then falsely indicts "business" on the basis of that faulty version.

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