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Is the Lorax message what people need? Or is it IHOP and Mazdas if you please?

By Katia Hetter, Special to CNN
March 13, 2012 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Based on the 1971 Dr. Seuss classic, "The Lorax," the movie version was the No. 1 movie in the country for the past two weekends. Based on the 1971 Dr. Seuss classic, "The Lorax," the movie version was the No. 1 movie in the country for the past two weekends.
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Tops at the box office
The Lorax and his friends
Does everyone need a Thneed?
Will the Humming-Fish hum?
The last of the Truffula seeds
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Families are flocking to see the latest Dr. Seuss movie
  • Critics say the Lorax would not have approved of car or pancake deals
  • The movie has helped sell more Dr. Seuss books
  • One person can make a difference, even if acting alone

(CNN) -- And in that very moment, we heard a loud whack!
From outside in the fields came a sickening smack
Of an axe on a tree. Then we heard the tree fall.
The very last Truffula Tree of them all!

A community where the last tree is cut down to make a "Thneed" that no one needs. Where real trees have been replaced by artificial ones with disco lights. A plastic city where people pay for clean air.

That's the smoggy setting of "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax," the country's No. 1 movie for the second weekend in a row. Based on the Dr. Seuss 1971 classic, the environmentally themed movie has attracted children and adults to the theaters, earning $121.7 million in its first 10 days, according to Hollywood.com.

The movie made $70 million on its first weekend in release, the biggest opening weekend for a movie this year and about double what Hollywood.com box office division president Paul Dergarabedian had estimated. Even midweek ticket sales for the film, produced by Illumination Entertainment and released by Universal Pictures, have been high.

" 'The Lorax' exceeded expectations by a mile, it was crazy," said Dergarabedian. "The visuals are irresistible, and it was a powerful draw for people. It's a terrific movie at the end of the day, entertaining to parents as much as to the kids."

'The Lorax' leaps to life on big screen

Mother Megan Kalweit agrees. "We went the day that it opened, and my 3-year-old sat through the entire movie completely interested," said Kalweit, an Arlington, Illinois, stay-at-home mom of two boys. "We were talking about it on the way home, and for a 3-year-old, he got a lot of the concept. It had a strong message that unfortunately is something that all of us are going to need to be more aware of moving forward."

Audiences want family-friendly fare

Any Dr. Seuss movie will have a built-in audience among adults who remember the books from their childhood and the children who are reading those classics now. And although every major movie studio now has an animation unit, they haven't released much this year to satisfy the demand for family-friendly fare, according to Thom Geier, senior editor at Entertainment Weekly.

"The last big family film hit was 'Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked,' way, way back in December, so there's been a pent-up demand for family films as a lot of schools head into spring break," said Geier. "Two other factors in the Lorax's huge opening: A really successful marketing campaign by Universal -- the voice cast was all over sister network NBC in the week before the opening -- and the fact that it's in 3-D, which means higher ticket prices and profits for the theaters and the studio."

The movie is not without its critics.

While not objecting to the movie itself, some parents claim that some of the movie's commercial tie-ins with IHOP, Mazda and other companies ignore the Lorax's essential green message. (The studio also has partnerships with Seventh Generation, Whole Foods and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others.)

"In the movie, the corporate 'bad guy' puts up billboards for products saying 'Lorax Approved,' and the message was that co-opting the Lorax's image and brand is a bad thing," said Jennifer Taggart, a blogger and author of "Smart Mama's Green Guide: Simple Steps to Reduce Your Child's Toxic Chemical Exposure."

"To me, the compelling message of the book, and the movie, was that slick advertising can make us want things we don't need, and producing them can result in catastrophic environmental harm," said Taggart. "And yet, Universal Pictures has completely ignored that message, as have the launch partners, by slickly advertising Lorax-approved products -- products that we don't need."

"We tried to look for partners who provided some sort of a good environmental choice for consumers," said a Universal Pictures spokesperson, declining to comment further on the debate over the commercial tie-ins. "We are absolutely thrilled at the response to 'The Lorax.' "

Companies want you to "buy, buy, buy"

That's why parents like Hannah Laurison, who lives in Oakland, California, are refusing to take her children to the movie.

Laurison reads the book to her daughters, 2 and 4, to teach them about how their actions and the things they buy affect the environment.

"This kind of corporate green-washing is the antithesis of the Lorax's message," said Laurison. "The Mazda ad in particular upends the Lorax's message in order to sell cars. Instead of taking my (4-year-old) daughter to see the movie, we are having conversations about how some companies just want you to buy, buy, buy, without thinking about what that means for the trees, the animals and people."

Movie experts say tie-ins are a fact of life for many movies, and especially children's animation flicks. Without added revenue from movie-themed toys, fast-food tie-in deals, DVDs and related books, family-friendly fare won't get made, says Entertainment Weekly's Geier. (Universal didn't order up a Lorax-themed Happy Meal.)

The movie's marketing efforts and its success at the box office is helping multiple Dr. Seuss books get back onto the best-seller lists, according to John Sellers, children's reviews editor at Publishers Weekly.

"His books are perennial favorites, of course, but the film and all the marketing muscle behind it certainly have a hand in that kind of sales bump," says Sellers. "And while companies like Mazda have drawn fire for their ties to the Lorax film, publishers routinely publish numerous book tie-ins to capitalize on upcoming movies. Random House has published Lorax activity books, early readers and a pop-up book this spring. They aren't just banking on the original book."

Erin Moya, whose 3-year-old son has spina bifida, prefers to focus on the movie's message that one person can make a difference -- and must try even if no one else agrees.

"It's not only about caring for your environment, but also about speaking up for those who can't speak for themselves," said Moya, who lives in Gainesville, Florida. "Whether we're talking about trees or children with disabilities, it's important to me that my son knows from an early age to always try to do the right thing -- even if you're the only one trying."

And that's the Lorax narrator's message to all his little readers.

UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It's not.

What do you think of the Lorax's message? Do you have other favorite Dr. Seuss books that you'd like made into films? Let us know in the comments below!

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