“Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” opens with a musical number introducing the residents of “Thneedville”, an enclosed city where everything is plastic and fake, without a single living plant or tree. The residents of Thneedville are rampant consumerists.
One Thneedville boy, Ted (Zac Efron), has a huge crush on Audrey (Taylor Swift), and he deliberately crashes his model plane onto her roof so he can talk to her. Audrey shows Ted a mural of trees she is painting on the back of her house. She has never seen a living tree, and she says that if someone brought her a real, live tree, she would probably marry them on the spot. Ted decides he will do whatever it takes to find a live tree for Audrey.
Cut to Ted eating dinner with his mom and Grammy (Betty White). Ted asks his mom where he can find a real live tree, and Grammy says that Ted should ask the Once-ler. She says the Once-ler lives far outside town. If Ted brings him 15 cents, a nail, and a great-great grandfather snail, the Once-ler should answer his question. Ted gets on his scooter, and follows a vent pipe out of the city.
Over to Mr. O’Hare, the de facto mayor of Thneedville, who has made his millions selling fresh air to the residents of the polluted city. His advisors are displaying the next big product, bottled fresh air. They tell Mr. O’Hare the factory that manufactures the bottled fresh air will produce more smog, raising the demand for fresh air. Mr. O’Hare’s bodyguards enter the room and inform him that someone has been spotted leaving the city: they display video of Ted on his scooter. Mr. O’Hare says to follow Ted.
Ted has escaped the city, and discovers that the landscape outside is a devastated wasteland. Smog and sludge pour out of Thneedville. Eventually, Ted finds the house of the Once-ler and rings the doorbell. The Once-ler (Ed Helms) is reluctant to speak to Ted, but when he hears that Ted is looking for a living tree, he agrees to talk to him through the slats that cover the Once-ler’s window.
The Once-ler tells Ted that the trees are all gone because of the Once-ler’s invention, the “Thneed”. When the Once-ler was a young man, he left his disapproving family and travelled the world, searching for the perfect material to manufacture his invention. Eventually, he came to a paradise full of birds, fish, animals, and luscious groves of Truffula trees. The Truffula trees had thick tufts in place of leaves, perfect for knitting his Thneed.
The Once-ler cut down one of the Truffula trees to harvest the tufts. The act of cutting that first tree summoned the Lorax (Danny DeVito), the guardian of the forest. The Lorax tried to get the Once-ler to leave the forest in peace, but the Once-ler wouldn’t listen. The Once-ler stops his story and tells Ted to come back tomorrow to hear the rest of it.
Cut to Audrey, blowing out the candles on her birthday cake. Her friends have all brought gifts, but the best gift of all is from Ted: a real, live tree. She is so excited that she leans in for a kiss. Suddenly Ted is kissing a cereal box. The fantasy is over, and he’s eating breakfast with his mom and Grammy. He wants to visit the Once-ler again, but his mom says it’s family day. She pulls out the board games, and Grammy plays super slow until Ted’s mom can’t stand it anymore and Ted is free to go.
As Ted is riding his scooter back out of town, he is intercepted by Mr. O’Hare. Mr. O’Hare wants to know what Ted is up to. He warns Ted that he has cameras everywhere, and Ted better not leave the city again.
Ted waits until Mr. O’Hare is gone, then rides back to the Once-ler’s house. The Once-ler continues his story: when the Once-ler wouldn’t leave the forest, the Lorax and the other animals snuck into his house at night and tried to float him down the river on his bed. When the Lorax saw that the Once-ler was about to go over a huge waterfall, he used a rock to catapult the Once-ler back onto land. The Lorax and the animals explained to the Once-ler that the Truffula trees were their home, and the Once-ler promised not to cut down any more trees.
The Once-ler used the tufts of the Truffula tree to knit the very first Thneed. (The Thneed is basically a long scarf that can be used as a sweater, washcloth, clothesline, or whatever). The Once-ler took the Thneed to the nearest town and tried to sell it, but the townspeople weren’t interested and threw tomatoes at him. In disgust, the Once-ler threw away the Thneed, which landed on the head of the nearest pretty girl. Suddenly, all the townspeople wanted a Thneed. The Once-ler called his family to join him in the forest.
Back in Thneedville, Audrey comes home to find that O’Hare has painted over her mural. Ted likewise discovers that O’Hare has sealed the door Ted was using to exit the city. Ted jumps his scooter over the wall to return to the Once-ler.
The Once-ler’s family arrived in the forest in their giant RV. At first they were content to harvest the tufts off the Truffula trees, but before long the demand for Thneeds convinced them to start hacking down the trees to get the tufts faster. The Lorax asked the Once-ler how he could break his promise, but the Once-ler just ignored him. The Once-ler and his family built a gigantic factory to churn out Thneeds, polluting the river and filling the air with smog. The Once-ler sang a song called “How Bad Can I Be?” about survival of the fittest.
The Lorax came to visit the Once-ler in his giant mansion, and tried to show him that the animals were gone, and the landscape was being destroyed. The Once-ler said, “I don’t care, nothing is going to stop me.” Just then, his machinery cut down the very last Truffula tree. “Maybe that will stop you,” The Lorax said. With no more Truffula trees to harvest, the Thneed factory shut down and the Once-ler’s family deserted him. As two janitors packed up to leave, one said, “I wonder what the next million dollar idea will be?” The second janitor, who was Mr. O’Hare, said, “I wonder…”
The Once-ler was abandoned by everyone, and even the Lorax floated back up into the sky, leaving only a headstone reading “Unless”.
The Once-ler finishes his story, saying that he has remained in the same place ever since, regretting the devastation he wrought. He says there are no living Truffula trees anymore, but he has in his possession the very last Truffula seed. He gives it to Ted and tells him to plant it in the center of the city. Ted says that nobody in the city cares about trees anymore, but the Once-ler says that Ted must make them care, he must change the way things are.
Ted sneaks back into the city, but he is spotted by Mr. O’Hare’s cameras, which spy the Truffula seed. Ted stops by Audrey’s house and asks her to come over. Back at his own house, Ted searches for the materials necessary to plant the seed. He is interrupted by the doorbell, and he leaves the seed on his desk, where it is doused by a bottle of water.
Downstairs, Ted is accosted by Mr. O’Hare and his bodyguards. They search Ted’s room, but the seed is gone. After they leave, Grammy reveals that she took the seed, and it has already sprouted. Audrey arrives and is thrilled to see the sprout she is just about to kiss Ted when Ted’s mother interrupts.
Ted’s mom speeds away from the house in her car, and is followed by Mr. O’Hare’s bodyguard, until he realizes that the figure in the back seat of her car is not Ted, but only a dummy. Meanwhile, Ted, Audrey, and Grammy speed away in the opposite direction on Ted’s scooter. Mr. O’Hare and his other bodyguard give chase, and they manage to knock the seedling out of Ted’s hand. A huge chase ensues, where Grammy finally snags the seedling and they speed to the center of town.
In the town square, they attempt to plant the seed, but there is only pavement and fake grass everywhere. Ted knocks over the giant gold Mr. O’Hare statue and Grammy uses a giant excavator to reach the dirt. The townspeople are angry that Ted is making such a mess, and Mr. O’Hare gets them even more riled up, saying that Ted wants to plant a nasty, dirty tree that will attract insects. The people of Thneedville agree that the city is perfect as is, they don’t need a tree.
Ted uses the excavator to knock a hole in the wall of the city. He shows everyone the pollution and devastation outside. He says things aren’t perfect, and they will only going to get worse. He says, “I’m Ted Wiggins, and I speak for the trees. We need to change our ways.” He shows the people the seedling, which has sprouted a tiny tuft. The townsfolk are dazzled. The “O’Hare Air” deliveryman starts to sing a song “Let it Grow”, and everyone joins in. When Mr. O’Hare still resists, his bodyguard straps a rocket pack to his head and sends him flying out of the city.
Ted plants the tree in the center of the city, and Audrey gives him a kiss on the cheek. Outside the city, the Once-ler hears the people singing and knows that Ted has succeeded.
A short time later, there are dozens of seedlings growing all around the Once-ler’s house. As he waters them carefully, he sees that a bird has returned to the growing forest. A light comes down from the sky, and the Lorax returns as well. He tells the Once-ler, “You did good.” The Once-ler hugs the Lorax.
The film ends with a quote from Dr. Seuss: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing will get done, no it will not.”
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