Saturday, March 3, 2012

The one that got it right

Especially in the last 10-15 years, when an ever greater number of the available properties have been turned into movies, screenwriters have had to deal with the unenviable problem of turning beloved short-form content into feature-length films. As is probably the case in any subsection of the movie world, few of them have gotten it right.

It's a big problem. When you have a 30-page storybook and are being asked to produce an 80-minute film, or possibly longer, how do fill up those extra minutes beyond what we know from the page? How do you flesh out that world?

The failures have been easy to remember. Several Christmas movies have failed in this regard (The Polar Express and Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas), and then you also have your run-of-the-mill failures (Curious George, Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat). Then there are the movies that weren't quite failures, but don't leave much of a lasting impression (Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!).

Not surprisingly, you see Dr. Seuss' name all over that admittedly small sampling of movies. This is not because Dr. Seuss had anything to do with any of these movies (he's been dead since 1991, so of course he didn't), nor because his material is intrinsically difficult to expand to feature length. It's because all material is difficult to expand to feature length, and he just happens to have a lot of beloved material that's worth attempting to expand.

The latest attempt hits theaters today, and it's an adaptation of my favorite Dr. Seuss story. The Lorax has always appealed to me for not only its themes -- I consider myself a very low-level environmentalist -- but also for the maturity it asked of me as a young child. Not that any of Dr. Seuss' works are presented in a purely uncomplicated way, but this one was especially not-uncomplicated. Despite all the colors of the Truffala trees and the Brown Barbaloots, this is a sober, somber story, something that would be at home among the oeuvre of Shel Silverstein. It ends with a wonderful bit of optimism, but you can't exactly call it a happy ending, either. It's a "wait and see" ending, and points the finger of responsibility directly out of the book at you, the reader. Even when I was very young, I instinctively got this.

And because I wanted to expose my own son to this book at a very young age, I've already been reading it to him for almost a year. The first time, I just borrowed it from the library and we read it only once. Then I bought it for him for Christmas, and we've read it a half-dozen times. He's only 18 months old, so he's not gleaning anything from it yet. But there will be a day when it all clicks, when I can see the understanding in his eyes. I bought a half-dozen Dr. Seuss books for him for Christmas, but only presented him The Lorax and The Cat in the Hat, figuring (once I saw all the other gifts he'd gotten) that I'd save the other books for other occasions. I chose those two because The Cat in the Hat is kind of like Dr. Seuss 101, and, well, The Lorax is the best.

So it's with even greater fears of disappointment that I greet the feature-length Lorax, which is (like his other movies) properly referred to as Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. Seeing only the poster you see above in a movie theater, some six months ago, I was filled with hope for its potential. Seeing the TV ads, however, reminded me that they have to add a lot of meat to the bones of Seuss' story.

And I'm not sure what I think of the quality of that meat.

I've intentionally limited my exposure to moving images of The Lorax, but I do have one moment in mind from the trailer that seems to speak volumes about what kind of movie this might be. The Lorax is confronted by some kind of objectionable woman whose appearance leaves some doubt about her gender. So the Lorax whispers to someone "That's a woman?" Except he says it in this kind of Borscht Belt Jackie Mason accent, like he's on a stage somewhere in the Catskills. (Looking it up just now, I see the character is voiced by the size-appropriate Danny DeVito.)

Sober and somber, this will not be.

I don't want to trash the writers of The Lorax, or Universal, the studio that created it. All I want to say, right now, is that I'm worried. And this is even before I've checked Metacritic to see what other critics are saying. (Better that way, or a high Metascore could blow this whole post out of the water.)

Perhaps the part that really worries me: "From the creators of Despicable Me." I did not like Despicable Me.

To add a greater sense of weight to the whole thing, Universal has made the clever decision to release The Lorax on Dr. Seuss' birthday. He would have been 108 today. Will this movie honor the essence of what we love about the man and his work? My fear is that it will not.

But ah, just like The Lorax, there is a glimmer of hope at the end of my tale. Because there's one movie that's gotten it right, giving all the others hope:

I had a similar wariness before I saw Spike Jonze' Where the Wild Things Are. In this case, I wasn't worried that they'd dumbed it down for kiddies. But I was worried that the creative decisions -- ironically, decisions that seemed to make it more adult-oriented -- wouldn't pay off. (I'd also heard stories of great dysfunction from the set.)

But wow. Did it ever pay off.

Where the Wild Things Are, the book, was at the extreme far end in terms of scarcity of content -- a mere 338 words. Yet this movie simply sings. It's warm in all the right places and cold in all the right places. It's fun in all the right places and scary in all the right places. It's simple in all the right places and it's deliriously complex when it needs to be. In all aspects it's visionary.

I think part of what made the movie so great is that the book that inspired it is really more like an idea than a story. Yes, there's a clear journey in Where the Wild Things Are, but there are really only a few iconic beats, and nothing like complexity of character or a detailed plot. I know that's kind of a silly thing to say about a children's storybook. Most storybooks are not high on depth, and in this case, Where the Wild Things Are is like most storybooks.

But I think what Maurice Sendak's material allowed Jonze and co-adapter Dave Eggars was a freedom to take this world and run with it. To create real characters out of creatures that never spoke. To start with a visual scheme and to imagine where it might logically go. And to create a framing story with real human depth and emotion.

But is Where the Wild Things Are the last Truffala tree? The movie seems like a real anomaly, a huge risk on the part of the studio. And although many critics lavished it with praise, there were some who just felt the decision didn't work. And the truth is, it probably would have been more popular with audiences if it had gotten the animation treatment, and if all the wild things engaged in rapid-fire exchanges of pop culture references.

Which is why I expect The Lorax -- a terrific candidate to be made smartly, for adults as well as kids -- to wimp out and do the same. It's why I expect all these adaptations to do the same ...



Vancetastic said...

Two follow-up notes:

1) I couldn't resist and checked the Metascore. 49. Ouch.

2) HOWEVER, then I couldn't resist and watched a proper trailer for the movie, rather than just the brief TV ads. I actually feel slightly more encouraged about it. Maybe more than slightly. But, I'll leave the post as is. (It was really intended more as an excuse to praise Where the Wild Things Are, which I have not done previously in this space.)

Travis McClain said...

You've already thoroughly covered the subject of adaptations and elaborations, and I really have nothing to add to that. So instead, here's my Top 5 Seuss:

1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
2. Green Eggs and Ham
3. The Sneeches
4. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
5. And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street!

Jandy said...

I have no comment on The Lorax, which I have neither read nor seen.

But you are totally and 100% correct about Where the Wild Things Are. I was totally blown away by that movie. Completely magical, every second.

Vancetastic said...

Travis, of your Seuss list, I know #3 only by name and I don't know #5 at all. And I don't know why, but I think of Green Eggs and Ham and One Fish etc. as the same book. Maybe because they are both very simple?

Jandy, glad you agree. Spike Jonze pretty much makes no bad choices in general. Very big fan of Adaptation and Being John Malkovich as well.