Greenwashing the Lorax: A Movie Review

Sarah Zimmerman is an undergraduate at Columbia University studying Sustainable Development and Human Rights, and interned at GRACE in the spring of 2012. Originally from Philadelphia, Sarah is personally committed to GRACE's mission of creating more transparency in the food system.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in a nearly empty theater in San Francisco, sitting down to watch The Lorax. The lights dimmed and I tried to relax, ready to experience the film for its entertainment value.

I tried to go into the film open-minded - as a child would be. The songs were catchy and the animation well done; on the surface, it was an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. Corporate greenwashing and political rhetoric only serve to distract -- and even corrupt -- what the Lorax stands for.

But it wasn't as simple as sitting down to watch a kids' movie - my thoughts quickly ran to corporate sponsorship, greenwashing and little indoctrinated socialists taking over the world.

Let me tell you why.

The Lorax, a children's book by Dr. Seuss, was originally published in 1971. It chronicles the plight of the Lorax, a small orange creature who "speaks for the trees." When the Onceler moves into town and starts cutting the region's beautiful Truffula trees to produce useless "thneeds," the Lorax tries to warn everyone about the negative consequences of degradation, but is ignored. Ultimately, the once-beautiful land becomes polluted and dead. The story ends on an optimistic note, with a young boy being given the last Truffula seed to plant.

The book gave rise to a television special in 1974, and this year was remade into a feature length film, which takes a different angle on the Seuss story. In it, Ted Wiggins, a 12-year-old boy, lives in "Thneed-Ville," an artificial, walled-in city where everything is made out of plastic and trees are battery-operated. To attract the attention of a girl, he escapes the city to find a real tree. He hears the story of the Lorax, and what began as an undertaking to impress his crush becomes a personal mission to remind the world of the importance of the environment.

Peppered throughout the movie are happy musical numbers, with lyrics such as:

Let it grow, let it grow, You can't reap what you don't sow! Plant the seed inside the earth, Just one way, to know its worth. Celebrate the world's rebirth, We say let it grow.

So...what's the problem? Nice animation, feel-good songs, and talking marine animals all sound pretty good. Many environmentalists have criticized the film for being completely antithetical to Seuss' message, and Seuss fans in general may find the modernization of its plot as annoying as the other feature films that have been based on his work.

Whatever folks think about the content, the sponsorships have definitely raised some eyebrows. Universal had eleven corporate partners in the production of The Lorax, and what may seem like a token partnership with the US Forest Service. Let's take a look at a few of these partnerships.

Mazda's new SUV, the CX-5 is the official car of the film. According to a 30-second spot in which the SUV winds its way through a field of Truffula trees, the CX-5 "has earned the Certified Truffula Tree Seal of Approval." What that even means, we'll never know. What we do know is that at best its CO2 emissions are hardly below average. Mazda has even outright said that they do not intend to "rely heavily on vehicles that are strictly dedicated to meeting environmental needs."

Hewlett-Packard (HP) is another of Universal's partners, and have likewise tailored their marketing to the theme of The Lorax, and again missed out on the point, and counted on consumers to do so, too. "Print like the Lorax!" says their ads - the irony speaks for itself.

Fluffy language, suggestive images, and a lack of evidence expose this campaign for what it is: blatant corporate greenwashing. And yet, there are those who worry the film will turn America's youth into environmental activists. Fox News' Lou Dobbs called the movie an attempt to "indoctrinate" our children by ambushing them with liberal ideas."The Lorax [is about] a woodland creature that speaks for the trees and fights rampant industrialism," said Dobbs. He compared the film to Occupy Wall Street, trying to "pit the makers against the takers." The movie has even been criticized for trying to proselytize "little eco-terrorists."

All of this political friction further distances us from the originally simple message of The Lorax; it certainly detracted from my viewing experience. That being said, I tried to go into the film open-minded about all of these disputes -- as a child would be -- and to enjoy the movie for its entertainment value. The songs were catchy and the animation was extremely well done; on the surface, it was an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. It's only after researching the production background that the message gets muddled. Corporate greenwashing and political rhetoric only serve to distract -- and even corrupt -- what the Lorax stands for. He "speaks for the trees," but can we hear him?

If you've seen The Lorax- what did you think? If you haven't, do you plan to? Let us know in the comments!