If you turned off the sound - or better yet, if you saw it, unsubtitled, in a language you don't understand - The Lorax might even seem like a pretty great animated movie. For it is gorgeous: hardly a single one of its 86 minutes fails to hold some absolutely breathtaking mixture of texture and color, and at its best, it presents wholly-realised vistas that are the equal, in detail, imagination, and cohesion, of any fantasy you could name drop. It is as much fun to look at as any CGI animated movie I could name; not even the "not made by Pixar" qualifier applies here. The whole thing is absolutely a bit more rounded and cartoony than Pixar has ever really worked with, which is somewhat to its benefit (it doesn't feel like they're trying to copy the better-known studio, the way that Blue Sky sometimes does), while also limiting the degree to which it can be unconditionally praised - there are always going to be those who'll dislike this sort of thing as being too obvious and heavy-handed, though I am not among them. The first time the wind blows the CGI fronds of a Truffula tree, a cotton whisp in a seemingly infinite number of candy-colored shades of pink and magenta, the film had already won my heart, visuals-wise, but that sealed it, and officially set a bar for visual excellence that the 2012 crop of animated pictures will be hard-pressed to overleap.

That's, as I said, if you're lucky enough not to be fluent in English, which raises the question of how you'd be reading my opinions in the first place. If, however, you see The Lorax in a language that allows the story, dialogue, and performances to come across; in that case, you have my apologies, because if I managed in that first paragraph to get you all riled up for how amazing the film is, I shall now be devoting my energies to explaining just how much it fucking sucks. For it fucking sucks a whole lot - it's a run-of-the-mill adventure picture for children with a message jammed crudely but superficially in at several key points, with characters that we have no reason to like or find interesting shuffling about through the standard template of modern children's adventure-comedies, as refined by Pixar and stolen by everyone else: open with character stuff, put comedy in the middle, and end with a chase scene. Firstly, The Lorax at its best is only a perfectly average example of the modern "family" film, and at its worst is several rungs lower; secondly, it is particularly irritating that it should be thus and thereby ruin that lovely, wonderful design and animation; thirdly, it fucking sucks because this hugely pedestrian kiddie flick manages to stomp all over one of the most famous and touching stories written by the uniquely beloved children's poet and illustrator Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel.

Not that we should be surprised: this is the fourth feature film adapted from a Dr. Seuss book, and they have ranged from mediocre but tolerable down to retina-scarring awfulness. The Lorax lands on the higher end of that scale; but it is not a good scale to be on in the first place. The problem is always that these are short, delicate little tales with narratives that can be dusted through in ten minutes if you pace yourself. In this case, an unnamed boy visits a man-thing called the Once-Ler in a tower in the wastes outside of town; the man recalls the story of how he, personally, is responsible for the devastation of a formerly lush and growing valley; how, in his youth, he was visited by a brownish little being called the Lorax, an environmental spirit who begged, repeatedly and to no avail, that the rampaging industrialist should stop even for a moment in his rape of the land. It's a straightforward morality tale, one of the most messagey things Dr. Seuss ever put his name to; it's also as direct and compact as a parable, and that's really all it is.

Parables don't sell movie tickets, which is of course why screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul were obliged to lard up the original with so much excess that Seuss's core is essentially abandoned. The boy has a name now, Ted, and he's voiced by Zac Efron; he journeys out to the wasteland home of the Once-Ler (Ed Helms), trying to impress a girl, Audrey (Taylor Swift), who wants to see a real-live tree - for Ted and Audrey and everyone else lives in the walled city of Thneedville, where everything is artificial, including the air, sold by the cunning entrepreneur Aloysius O'Hare (Rob Riggle), who looks like The Incredibles's Edna Mode on drag king night. The Once-Ler - upgraded from a pair of green arms whose body is never seen to a regular old cartoon character - recalls his youth, when he chopped down Truffula trees and encountered the Lorax (Danny DeVito), while back in the film's present, Ted takes the knowledge of the Once-Ler's story to engage in a 20-minute chase sequence that, naturally, involves everything wrapping up just great, in contrast to Seuss's pensive, muted optimism.

It's a message film that swallows its own message: that, in a nutshell, is what dooms The Lorax. Those glowing, magnificent vistas that the filmmakers, led by director Chris Renaud (of Despicable Me, the first film by Lorax studio Illumination Entertainment), treat us to? Fine and good, except there is no distinction between the inventive, fun, beautiful world of Thneedville and the inventive, fun, beautiful world of the valley; it's all just eye candy, and we're given absolutely no reason to care when the one is bulldozed and turned into the other. That is pretty much the problem throughout: the filmmakers are so anxious to entertain and sell toys and turn Seuss's singing fish into orange version of Despicable Me's gibberish-spouting minions, that they don't bother fleshing out the message using visuals; not in the way that Pixar's WALLΒ·E managed to nail the balancing act of being a corporate product about the dangers of corporate products. The Lorax is too hectic and in love with the moment at the expense of the whole to have any message at all; it is a movie, like so many movies, for those with undernourished attention spans, flitting from one bright color to the next without caring what they represent.

And while I could never forgive this - if you plan to abuse Seuss, the least you can do is hew close to his original themes, like Lorax producer Christoper Meledandri did with his Horton Hears a Who! - and for that matter, the amount of Seussian language present in the film is negligible to the point of invisibility - it would be acceptable, at least, if the film were still a solid bit of entertainment; for after all, those bright colors are tremendously appealing. But no, this is just another damn kids' movie like every other damn kids movie: banal jokes and bad celebrity voicework. Seriously, Zac Efron and Taylor Swift? At least DeVito sounds distinctive, and does something less broad and shticky than you might guess.

The best the film can do is to throw some attempts at musical numbers in there; the opening song about the wonderful artificial life of Thneedville is even pretty vibrant and fun (a later moment, the Once-Ler's "I'm a villain now" montage song, would have worked much better with even slightly intelligent lyrics; stretching "bad" out to five syllables isn't good songwriting). Other than that, it has absolutely zero personality that it doesn't steal from Despicable Me, and it doesn't even take that very far. It's a pretty thing to look at, and does better than any of the other Seuss features at capturing the feeling of his illustrations, but even the best eye candy is still just empty calories without something there to prop it up.