PROTEST the environment, be generous to refugees and be accepting of children having difficulties with their sexuality: these are the themes of three films opening this week. To start with the one that will be most widely seen, Dr Seuss’ The Lorax is based on a story by Dr Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel, published in 1971. It was adapted into a short cartoon by Depatie-freleng the following year. The new version is an elaborate, Cgi-animated affair, made by the team that produced Despicable Me, including directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda.
The story unfolds in the enclosed town of Thneedville, a place of squeaky-clean suburban streets and no natural vegetation whatsoever. The trees in Thneedville are plastic and both water and air come in plastic bottles — and the plastic is produced by Mr O’hare (voiced by Rob Riggle), a big business entrepreneur whose monopolistic practices have given him control over the entire community.
For young Ted (Zac Efron), life has always been like this, but a chance remark from Audrey (Taylor Swift), a girl he very much likes, about wanting to see a real tree gets him talking to his grandmother (Betty White), who advises him to leave the town and seek out the Once-ler (Ed Helms), a hermit who knows the history of Thneedville. The Once-ler reveals that, when he was a young man, he discovered how the beautiful Truffula trees that once covered the landscape could be used to make products he called Thneeds and that, despite the objections of The Lorax (Danny de Vito), a grumpy fellow who acts as guardian and spokesperson for the trees, he set about chopping them down — until there were none left. And with the destruction of the trees, the animals were forced to flee also — and soon the landscape is bereft of fauna: the cute Bar-ba-loots, the Swomee-swans and the Humming-fish.
Geisel’s widow, Audrey, one of the film’s executive producers, has said The Lorax was her husband’s favourite among all the stories he wrote and it’s certainly a no-holds-barred assault on corporate greed and short-term thinking, a family film that has the potential to convert a whole generation of kids to thinking green. There’s little in the way of nuance here (the climactic musical number demands: ‘‘ Let It Grow, As It Did So Long Ago’’), but as a bright, colourful and undeniably entertaining animated experience — screening in 3D in many cinemas — it’s seductively engaging. LE Havre, which won the FIPRESCI (International Film Critics) prize in Cannes last year, is the second film made in France by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (after La Vie de Boheme). A film about ordinary people who try to help an African boy who travelled illegally to the port city in a ship’s container, it’s a humanistic work and, like most of Kaurismaki’s films, deliberately naive and out of time. Although the refugee question is a very contemporary one, this is a film in which everything evokes the past: there are no mobile phones and the quaint Moderne bar, where the leading character drinks, looks as though it might have been modern in the 1930s. The film’s characters — baker, grocer, bartender — all evoke another era.
This isn’t a criticism — far from it. There’s a simple sweetness to all of Kaurismaki’s films that is entrancing; perhaps the deliberate anachronisms aren’t as easy to spot for outsiders in his Finnish-based films, but here they’re plain to see.
The film’s hero is Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) who used to be a writer but now shines shoes for a living. He’s devoted to his wife Arletty — the name is a reference to the great French actress of Les Enfants du Paradis and other films of the 30s and 40s. Arletty (Kati Outinen) cooks and cleans for her husband and is happy to do so; they have no children, but own a dog, Laika (‘‘Laika’’ appears in almost every Kaurismaki film and this is the fifth animal to bear the name). When Arletty is taken seriously ill and hospitalised, Marcel’s world goes into a tailspin; and then he encounters, and shelters, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a boy aged about 12, who is alone and who desperately needs help — help Marcel gives him unhesitatingly.
The other key character in the film is a police inspector who is always dressed in symbolic black and who’s played by the excellent Jean-pierre Darroussin. In minor roles you can glimpse Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel, Jean-pierre Leaud, as the only nasty character, and comedy director Pierre Etaix as a doctor. As with every Kaurismaki film, music is important and in this case there’s a fund-raising concert headlined by Little Bob Piazza, who will only perform if he’s reconciled with his wife.
Le Havre is a unique film experience, not to be tackled if realism is your thing. Kaurismaki prefers to depict the world as it should be, not as it is; his approach is wonderfully warm and most of his characters represent the best of humanity. The refugee problem is real, we know, but for an hour and a half we can imagine, in this very special film, how, with a little kindness and consideration, it might not have to be like that. BY contrast, Celine Sciamma’s Tomboy takes place in a recognisably real and confronting world. 10-year-old Laure (Zoe Heran) moves with her heavily pregnant mother (Sophie Cattani), her father (Mathieu Demy) and her little sister (Malonn Levana) to a new town. Laure wears her hair cut short, dresses like a boy, and loves it when her dad lets her steer the car as he drives. The start of a new school term is still a couple of weeks away, and Laure nervously goes out to meet some of the neighbourhood kids, who mistake her for a boy. She goes along with this, introducing herself as Mikael.
It’s foolish of her, and clearly she knows it. Sooner or later the truth will out. In the meantime she’s able to swim and play soccer with the boys without wearing a top, and hang out with Lise (Jeanne Disson), a flirtatious youngster attracted to the new ‘‘ boy’’ in town.
This is potentially tricky material and the fact that the film classification board has given the film ag rating indicates that Sciamma has skilfully avoided the prurient. Yet the questions remain. We don’t know how Laure’s sexual leanings will eventually be resolved, but it’s pretty clear that she’s in for a lot of heartache.
In the meantime this small, very touching and beautifully acted film explores her world with tenderness and sympathy.
When the last real tree is chopped down it spells the end for the animals in Dr Seuss’ The Lorax