Ted Wiggins is an idealistic 12-year-old boy, who lives in "Thneedville," a walled city in which everything is artificial and made of plastic, metal, or synthetics. Ted has a crush on local environmentalist Audrey and decides to find a real tree in order to impress her. His energetic Grammy Norma secretly tells Ted the legend of the Once-ler, who will tell anyone about trees if brought fifteen cents, a nail, and a shell of a great-great-great grandfather snail. When Ted leaves Thneedville in search of the Once-ler, he discovers that the outside world is a contaminated, empty wasteland. The Once-ler agrees to tell Ted about the trees if he will listen to the story over the course of multiple visits. Ted agrees despite a confrontation with the mayor of Thneedville, Aloysius O'Hare, the greedy proprietor of a bottled oxygen company, who pressures the boy to stay in town. Ted continues to sneak out of O'Hare's sight (with his grandmother's encouragement) and learns more of the trees' history.
Over Ted's various visits, the Once-ler recounts the story of how he departed his family to make his fortune. After stumbling upon a lush Truffula Tree forest, the Once-ler meets the guardian of the forest, the Lorax, after cutting down a Truffula Tree. The Lorax urges Once-ler to leave the forest, but Once-ler refuses. Eventually, the Once-ler promises not to chop another tree down, and the two seem to begin a friendship of sorts. Then, the young businessman's Thneed invention becomes a major success and Once-ler's family arrives to participate in the business. At first keeping his promise, the Once-ler continues Thneed production by harvesting the Truffula Tree tufts in a slow, but sustainable manner. However, soon his greedy and lazy relatives convince him to resume chopping down the trees. Over time, the Once-ler's deforestation spirals into a mass overproduction. Flushed with wealth, the Once-ler rationalizes his short-sighted needs into arrogant self-righteousness, and the Lorax's helpless protests do not stop him. The Once-ler pollutes the sky, river, and landscape, until the last Truffula Tree falls. Finally, the Once-ler is distraught, with the region uninhabitable because of his business's pollution. He is left broken and forsaken by his family and becomes a recluse. The Lorax sends the animals off hopefully they'll be able to find a better place out there somewhere before he departs into the sky, leaving only a stone-cut word: "Unless".
After he finishes telling his story, the Once-ler finally understands the meaning behind the Lorax's last message, and gives Ted the last Truffula seed in hopes that he can plant it and make others care about real trees once more. Ted's desire to impress Audrey is now a personal mission to remind his town of the importance of nature. O'Hare, determined not to have trees undercut his business, takes heavy-handed steps such as covering Audrey's nature paintings, closing off the door that Ted uses to see the Once-ler, and forcibly searching Ted's room for the seed. Ted enlists his family and Audrey to help plant the seed, which has begun to germinate after coming into contact with water. O'Hare and his employees pursue the dissidents until they manage to elude him and reach the town center. When Ted finally attempts to plant the seed, he is interrupted by O'Hare, who rallies the population to stop them. To convince them otherwise, Ted takes an earthmover and rams down a section of the city wall to reveal the environmental destruction outside. Horrified at the sight and inspired by Ted's conviction, the crowd defies O'Hare, with his own henchmen expelling him from the town. The seed is finally planted, and Audrey kisses Ted on the cheek. Time passes and the land starts to recover; new trees sprout, the animals begin to return, and the redeemed Once-ler is happily reunited with the Lorax who has also returned.
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