In the last four years, Chris Meledandri has carved out quite a remarkable niche for himself and his company, Illumination Entertainment, becoming one of the most reliable hitmakers in animated entertainment, using his experiences at Walt Disney Pictures and 20th Century Fox Animation to make box office home runs out of “Despicable Me” and “Hop” for Universal Pictures. His latest project, ”Dr. Seuss' The Lorax,” brings him back to his days at Fox, where he supervised “Horton Hears A Who,” and creates another vivid, exciting Dr. Seuss adaptation in collaboration with directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda.
Late last year, The Playlist visited Illusion Entertainment’s Santa Monica campus, where Meledandri previewed footage from “The Lorax” and fielded questions about adapting Dr. Seuss’ work for the screen. Additionally, he talked about the source material’s environment message, and reflected on the best way to make a movie that’s both faithful and fully entertaining.
How important is the book’s environmental message, and how did you address that in the adaptation process?
Chris Meledandri: I think it’s pretty much embedded in what he created, about how greed could lead to a level of unconscious behavior that could have effects that could be somewhat disastrous. So that’s at the center of the story, and we would never veer away from that. That’s the essence of what he’s writing about, and he happens to do it with his incredible, imaginative style and a character that is ultimately looking for redemption, and another character who is kind of our conscience.
So I think that what you’ll see is that when we go into an adaptation of Geisel’s work, it’s not entirely dissimilar to the approach that we took on 'Horton,' which there’s only one way to do it, which is to work from the essence of what he’s put on the page, and the challenge is that the stories tend to be short. So how do you approach that? What we’ve done is we’ve looked at what’s happened before page one, and what happens in between the pages, and what happens afterwards. Those are the places that we look to, but with an idea that at the center of the movie is still what he wrote. So for example, when you look at the very first page of the book, what you see is the town that the boy lives in, so that for us became kind of a clue, which is to say, what’s that town like? What was this boy’s experience before he decided to go out and look for the Oncellor and the Lorax? So we start the movie earlier than the book starts, and explore what this town is like and what triggered this journey. So we’re inventing, but we’re inventing with the story at its centerpiece.
What did you learn from making “Horton Hears a Who” that you applied to “The Lorax?”
One of the lessons we learned was that because both stories are complicated – if you look at the 'Horton' story, we kind of bit off a similar storytelling challenge, which is you’ve got two parallel stories in both movies. This one happens to be the past and the present, because it’s a story within a story, and 'Horton' was two different worlds. So one of the things that we found was that when you get stuck, when you’re trying to weave those two stories in either project into a movie where you want them to feel seamless, a lot of the answers to the problems that you face are in the book. [Geisel] actually has, whether it’s in the book itself or actually in the writing where you go in and look at that he was thinking about at the time when he was writing the book, there are a lot of answers, actually, that he gives you. And I know it sounds very obvious, but we frequently find ourselves forgetting that and then spending five weeks wrestling over a problem, only to go back to the material itself and find the answer. But there is a wonderful balance in this between character and theme, and ultimately, even though we’re dealing with subject matter that can get sad, and at times the movie does get sad, the personality becomes the source of the comedy, because it’s very much character-based comedy as opposed to situation-based comedy. And that’s what allows the balance to exist between a movie that has some pretty serious themes, but also aspires to be entertaining. And that entertainment comes from character-based expression of personality, which is ultimately what becomes the counterbalance to some of the more serious themes.
Can you be too faithful to the source material?
It’s definitely a balance. I think what you’ll see is that with that architecture, you can be pretty faithful to it, and just translate it into dimensions and it works really well. And I think out translation of the Lorax himself, even though he’s a very simple character, every time I look at him rendered in 3D, I find him very faithful. But absolutely, for example, with the dialogue: the experience of the book is reading something in rhyme, and that’s not the experience of the movie, and that wasn’t the experience of 'Horton.' And also, for example, a vehicle like the axe-hacker, we just basically translated these designs and modeled this. I think that when it comes to the expansion of the storytelling, there absolutely was a need to be interpretive, as I described. Part of the reason is that if you read this book carefully is that the Lorax’s role in the book is to continually warn him, “Something bad’s going to happen.” Well, in the story, that’s keeping the story at a fairly static place, so the storytelling and the directorial presentation of that interaction between those characters definitely became more interpretive.
But I think it’s a balance. One of the things about this book that’s quite different from his earlier books is the color palette, so there was a great opportunity to use his decisions about color as inspiration for how we would treat color in the movie, especially in the sense of the sky. But I think one of the places where we took the most liberty was with the notion of kind of what is kicking this whole story into gear. And one of the things we’ve done in looking at this town, is we’ve created a town and a world where we thought there was a sense of relevance but also of fun. Because in that world, there’s nothing natural in that world, and people just love living that way because everything is manufactured and artificial, but if you don’t have trees, you can certainly have fake trees, and everybody loves them. So he comes from a world where people are extremely happy living in what is almost like a Las Vegas existence, and the people who live in that town are actually not aware that they’ve walled themselves off from the devastation around them. So that’s a place where we took liberties.
What’s the collaborative process like between the artists and writers and filmmakers to make sure everything fits together?
Well, it’s a completely integrated process; everything’s happening at once. First of all, the other part of this is that through working on 'Horton' and then “The Lorax,” Audrey Geisel plays a real role in responding to everything that we’re thinking about. She does a really good job of really keeping this property very central in her mind; she’s very sharp and very smart. And it’s very much an iterative process where we all are trying things collectively so as things are being conceived in the writing, they’re being visualized, and we’re learning about things that feel like they work, and things that feel like they don’t work. And there are many discoveries along the way, but it’s definitely a very different experience from working on a completely original idea, like we did on “Despicable Me.” It’s a very different set of challenges.
"Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" opens on March 2nd.