‘The Lorax’ Finally Gets Dr. Seuss Right

The “Despicable Me” team brings the beloved eco-fable to the screen with visual pop and catchy songs

If you grew up in the 1970s, when that left-wing socialist Richard Nixon started the Environmental Protection Agency, you spent a childhood surrounded by songs and stories about pollution and stewardship of the earth and keeping our air and water clean. (Hey, whatever happened to the word “ecology,” anyway?)

In an era when air could be brown and rivers could catch fire, this kid-friendly brand of activism packed a real punch.

The Lorax” keeps that spirit alive, representing hope not only for the future of the planet but also for big-screen adaptations of the works of Dr. Seuss, which have recently included the appalling live-action versions of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” and “The Cat in the Hat” as well as a merely-OK animated “Horton Hears a Who.”

“The Lorax” is the big screen’s best treatment of Seuss since the wonderfully weird 1953 kid-flick “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.”

One of the challenges of turning children’s books into movies is that a 20- or 30-page story doesn’t necessarily loan itself to a three-act structure. But “The Lorax” turns the original story into a flashback that takes up the middle part of the movie, with new material bookending it.

The film opens with the Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito) stepping out from behind a curtain to let us know that the story we’re about to see isn’t exactly the same as the one we already know.

In the town of Thneedville, everything is made of plastic, so the populace spends lots of money on packaged air from pint-sized magnate Mr. O’Hare (Rob Riggle). Young Ted (Zac Efron) has a crush on his slightly-older neighbor Audrey (Taylor Swift), and when she expresses a desire to see an actual tree, Ted sets out to find one for her.

(Dr. Seuss’ real name, incidentally, was Theodore Geisel, and his widow’s name is Audrey.)

Ted’s Grammy Norma (Betty White) tells him there’s one person who might be able to show him a tree — the reclusive Once-ler (Ed Helms) who lives far outside of the candy-colored confines of Thneedville. After he figures out how to get out of town (and he sees where all the local pollution actually goes), Ted makes his way out to see the Once-ler, who reluctantly tells Ted the tale of what happened to all the trees.

As a young man, the Once-ler left home to make his fortune on his invention, the Thneed. He arrived at a forest and befriended the local fauna, but when he chopped down a truffula tree, the magical Lorax appeared to speak for the trees and warn the Once-ler to leave the flora alone.

Readers of the original know the sad tale of what happened next, but this film version, from the folks behind “Despicable Me,” manage to include the tale’s sad and cautionary ending while also providing an upbeat climax that lets the audience leave on a high note that still drives home the message of responsibility and environmental awareness that Seuss put across back in 1971.

Directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda and their team honor Seuss’ original designs — those fuzzy-top trees and the comical bears and fish — while inventively creating the artificial world of Thneedville, where all the shrubbery is inflatable and it can be all four seasons simultaneously.

While the film isn’t a full-on musical, the creators weave in a handful of catchy songs that nestle comfortably in the ear and push the plot forward, a rare combo in most cartoons these days.

The voice cast is just fine, with Helms’ Once-ler traveling smoothly from protagonist to antagonist and back again. (A little of DeVito’s hectoring Lorax goes a long way, and the film wisely doles him out in small doses.)

Conservative commentators like Lou Dobbs are absolutely right when they say that “The Lorax” preaches in favor of the environment and against corporatism and waste and the destruction of the atmosphere. Parents who find that to be a message that’s somehow dangerous have every right not to go, but those Grinches, out of their terror of tree-hugging propaganda, will miss a real treat.