The Epic of The Once-ler

Cedar Trees

In an age of too much, too fast, too  late we have already shoved the Seussian idea of ecology into the recycle bin of useless messages.

I would rage against this idiotic cotton candy confection–but to what purpose?

I participated in the very cultural act it’s supposed moral speaks against as I went to the theater and ate corn syrup and popped corn.  (We did take in our own water, shhhh.)  If the movie’s message had any resonance the audience would have stepped out of the theater and begun dismantling the coercive commercial arena we had been cocooned within.

Rather than rage I will simply point out what seems obvious.

  • Hollwood is a machine and it’s product is mental and emotional waste.  At base it’s content is irrelevant or relevant only as it aids in sales.
  • The Lorax is a perfect example of the use of a “message” of the moment to sell seats in theaters (to sell concessions).
  • The main character is a boy who wants to win a girl, an older girl.  (With red hair–movie object-females seem to have red hair frequently…right?)  To achieve this he will give her a tree for her birthday.  She has painted the back of her home with images of the extinct truffula tree.  How she has come to realize this vision is unclear as we see no evidence for these trees anywhere but on her walls and in the mind of the boy’s grandma.
  • The girl can’t get her own tree?  I know it’s a genre convention–but why not team up?  If a movie of a short book must “fill in” the gaps and extend the story why not do something more with it?  I mean, it is her creative vision after all.  I suppose, since it seems appropriate to say here…why not have an Hermione?
  • The Once-ler is a kind of Johnny Appleseed in reverse and while his ambition is promoted and “praiseworthy,” especially as set against his “nay-saying” family, it seems his primary goal is to make something of himself.  This seems a primary goal of all entrepreneurs (other than wealth)–self-aggrandizement.
  • The Lorax, interestingly, is just an ineffectual forest god, though hardly a god.  He is just a warning.  His wrath comes later.  When asked, why didn’t he stop the deforestation with his powers he simply says “it doesn’t work that way.”  This is a wonderful truth that is absolutely weakened by the fact that we are still being fed the singular action item–you can plant a tree.  This may be metaphorical–you CAN plant a tree, but you can also do anything to help.  If instead the methane storms had come to Thneedville and destroyed them all a la Sodom and Gomorrah then the Lorax would be a creature of great power offering a true portent.
  • The villain is an opportunist and not a “maker” (though he is indeed an innovator) who capitalizes on the reality of the ensuing toxic air that follows upon complete deforestation.  In reality, he is a kind of hero, no?  He makes clean air, right?  He has fixed the problem and created a kind of utopia.  Of course, it’s all under surveillance and no one is allowed to do anything “messy.”  This is one of the least considered aspects of the film though probably its truest position.  “O’Hare Air” has indeed saved the human world from the after-effects of the Once-ler’s true greed.  O’Hare is in fact an insidious second-tier villain, the one that comes after the “go west, young man” manifest-destiny-loving resource stealing self-important “creator” leaves the world in a denuded impoverished state.  “What to make of a diminished thing?”
  • The Once-ler and O’Hare are our villains and our heroes.  They are large characters who realize their ambitions.  They are what America prizes and rewards.  You can plant a tree, sure, but O’Hare will revise his dominion by way of his power and money.  He is in charge of all the systems, don’t you know.
  • On and on…the people, it is never addressed in the film, are never once shown to be upset about their lives or unhappy to be living in this plastic, mechanical Utopia.  Why should there be trees if everyone is happy?  Calling Jeremy Bentham…this is the proper outcome of the utilitarian equation isn’t it?
  • Ultimately, it seems as if the message is, this is the way it is.  Hey, you can do something.  But guess what that something is…or what we have privileged?  An innovated “forward-looking” technological fix.
  •  A change will not come by planting a tree (though it would help) but by standing against O’Hare as an idea and by standing against the Once-ler as an idea.  And standing for The Lorax as a natural truth.  “Once” ambition finds expression in dominion over nature nothing can avert disaster “Unless” we steward the land instead.
  • Nature can and will balance the forces and elements once again.  The only question for humans is will there be any of us here to witness it?
  • I should point out that even though Gilgamesh, the Once-ler of Ur, slays Humwawa (the protector of the Cedar Forest), the Lorax, he really suffers no consequence either.  Rather Enkidu, his only friend, eventually suffers divine wrath for Gilgamesh’s ambitions against nature.  This is our oldest written literature.


“The Oven Bird” by Robert Frost

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.


I just realized that a recent favorite animated film, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, is actually a very similar movie.  It is to be certain funnier and more true than The Lorax.  But I realize too that CWCM is a Progressive-Positivist Fable that praises the same ambition (that of self-aggrandizing, entrepreneurial “vision”), praises the same technological “good” of novelty production, but then keeps up the ruse by proposing a technological fix as well, though thankfully with a very human difference.

In CWCM sardine production fails to keep the local economy afloat (not due to lack of sardines, but to a change in taste–interesting in itself) and in steps the outsider, dreamer–always mocked as weird and always bullied for that oddity–who doesn’t murder his bullies and bystanders with easily-procured automatic weapons, but creates a fantasy world made of out science in the form of technological manipulations of natural forces.  That, Frankenstein-like, goes awry, predictably, due to the immoderate greed of a politician, but also due to our hero’s need to BE a hero and be KNOWN to be a hero…to be loved for what he achieves not for who he is–to prove himself (in bigger and grander ways).  What is human in this though is that he feels the stress and error of his ways in real time–not, like the Once-ler, after he has ruined the world–he is prisoner to his invention

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There is catastrophe that doesn’t end the world (like total deforestation would and is ending ours) but would in anything but a comedy cartoon; instead it activates (actuates?) a very capable citizenry which energetically mobilize to save themselves, likely learning along the way that they can make do without the technological good life; and that catastrophe is averted by a team of heroes who had all been “captured” by external social expectations: a nerdy girl (red hair again!) who likes science but is so pretty that her success is about her looks (though she doesn’t seem aware of it–the perfect woman!), the main hero, the vacuous sardine model baby grown into a vacuous adult baby, and a, gasp, immigrant camera operator who can pilot anything.  So many wonderful talents and skills languishing under the expectations of the pigeon-holing culture!  In the end, though, it is their mastery of science and conquering of the machine that wins the day (the machine has become sentient by the by and must be destroyed, though the morality of destroying a now-sentient machine is not considered–it is out of control after all).

Look how much is in that movie to talk about!  This movie is unsure of its solutions the way its heroes are unsure of themselves.  They achieve real success by combining their skills, talents and humanity.  They are parts greater as a whole.

It is  such a better movie than The Lorax because it is funny, it is ambivalent, and so many of its characters are flawed.  It is a movie that is trying to think seriously about our modern condition and our imminent catastrophes.

Of course, I realize it is a movie and a product also.  But it is not ONLY a canned response for sale.

Just plant a tree, yo, and go about your business.


“Provide, Provide” by Robert Frost

The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag
Was once the beauty Abishag,

The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.

Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state.

Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone.

Some have relied on what they knew,
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!


photo credit: The Knowles Gallery’s photostream

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  1. Bobby V March 12, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Nobody should EVER mess with Dr. Seuss. Ever.

    Thanks for the review. This made me think of the differences between the book and film version of Neil Gamin’s “Coraline.” The movie had to change the plot by inserting a boy to ultimately save the heroine of the story, who did just fine by herself in print. In Hollywood America, the subtext for everything has to be desire – “innocent” or otherwise.

  2. Eric M. Sargent March 12, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    Younger boy wanting to give older girl a gift? Does it play-out like James Joyce’s “Araby”? Do gender roles enter?

  3. Douglas March 12, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    Well, he does yearn to give her a seed that is sprouting. And as you know, Nature’s first green is truffula.


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