The Lorax

“A town without nature: not one living tree. So what happened to them? Cue the music, let’s see.”

The Lorax film expands on Dr. Seuss’ picturebook The Lorax (1971) by adding three additional subplots to the original story: the rise and fall of Thneedville, a teen romance that leads to regeneration of a devastated landscape, and the return of the Lorax that signals a new, sustainable future. The action is set in a walled city of Thneedville. Everything in Thneedville is artificial and controlled by the O’Hare Corporation, which even sells air. When twelve-year-old Ted falls in love with Audrey, he discovers that her dream is to see real, living trees again. Ted sets out beyond the city walls to meet with the Once-ler and obtain seeds for new Truffula trees. Despite meddling and threats from Aloysius O’Hare, a greedy billionaire who controls Thneedville, Ted learns the Once-ler’s story about the killing of the trees, wins his trust, and returns with the last Truffula seed. The seed is planted in the city’s center. The citizens rebel against O’Hare, rediscovering their need for nature. The film ends with many new saplings tended by the repentant Once-ler and with the return of the Lorax—the spirit of trees—who reconciles with his once-friend the Once-ler.

The Lorax film is a planetarianist story about the possibility of a greener, sustainable future. It proceeds in the opposite direction than the original picturebook: from an industrial wasteland to a once-again green world. The film helps open up climate literacy discussions about environmental restoration, regeneration, reforestation, and the harmful, artificial divide between nature vs culture (anthropocentrism vs ecocentrism). The Once-ler’s story—of how he destroyed the valley’s ecosystem—is couched in the main plot, in which young Ted Wiggins challenges the dominant system of his city, showing that youth activism can make a difference. When Ted rebels against the norms of his city where everything is artificial and the smallest traces of nature are treated as contamination, he resembles the young Once-ler who also rebelled against his oppressive family and chose to pursue his dream. Unlike the Once-ler, however, Ted does not succumb to greed. Nor does he go back on his word, as the Once-ler did after promising the Lorax to harvest the trees sustainably—an action and motivation students can consider in comparison to the actions of real-world companies today (see greenwashing). Ted chooses a dream of environmental restoration that restores the citizens’ connection to nature, repairs the Once-ler’s mistakes, and brings the Lorax back.

On this level, the film replays the conflict between sustainability and the profit motive (see growth, capitalism, extractivism)—a conflict that Once-ler won in the past but the greedy Mayor of Thneedville, Aloysius O’Hare now loses. In the past, the Once-ler profited from ecocide. In the present, O’Hare continues to profit from environmental collapse, among other things by selling fresh air. Thneedville is walled off from nature, and its citizens are blind to the environmental devastation outside its walls. This represents a world of absolute divide between humanity and nature, an anthropocentric solitary confinement. Ted’s actions, supported by his granny, Once-ler, and Audrey, grow into an intergenerational, grassroot rebellion against this world devoid of nature. When Ted knocks down the city wall to show everyone the devastation outside and plants the seed of the first Truffula tree in the city center, the citizens join together for environmental restoration and reforestation of the valley. Soon after, seedlings of Truffula trees appear across the valley. The Once-ler is shown watering the saplings. The promise of a sustainable future is confirmed when the first Swomee Swan flies by and the Lorax reappears, joining the Once-ler in his conservation and restoration efforts.  

The use of frequent musical numbers helps students connect with the message. When I show scenes from The Lorax in class, I inevitably have students who sing along.

©2023 ClimateLit (Zach Johnson)

See also: The Lorax (picturebook, 1971)

Publisher: Illumination Entertainment, 2012

Pages: 86 min.


Audience: Little People (4-7), Questers (8-13)

Format: Films

Topics: Anthropocentrism, Capitalism, Conservation, Deforestation, Ecocentrism, Ecocide, Ecological Collapse, Ecological Restoration, Environmental Destruction, Extractivism, Greenwashing, Growthism, Logging, Planetarianism, Reforestation, Regeneration, Sustainability, Trees, Youth Climate Activism