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It would also be almost unbearably dark. There's just no getting around it. The Lorax as written is a relentless downer, purposefully designed to draw tears and anger at bedtime story length. A tonally faithful film adaptation would likely win raves from critics and older filmgoers, but it might actually be too oppressively bleak for the little ones. 90 minutes of watching the Barbaloots, Hummingfish and Swomee-Swans effectively being slowly poisoned into extinction? Might as well just call it The Road for kids. In other words, it's understandable (if not necessarily laudible) that Universal Pictures would want to find a way to film the story that wouldn't lead to each screening concluding with lines of sniffling, tear-streaked toddlers staggering out of theaters alongside parents already looking weary from the "Old Yeller Conversation" they're going to be having on the ride home.

So, instead, they turned it into a movie about a dweeby teenager trying to get laid.

Okay, maybe that's a bit extreme.

On the surface, the re-imagined story setup makes a certain amount of sense, keep the Once-ler/Lorax part (mostly) in its proper, short(ish) form and instead embellish the character of the boy who came looking for the answer. The way they've gone about it, on the other hand ...

In the new story, the boy is Ted (Zac Efron), whose sole apparent goal in life is to make time with his pretty neighbor Audrey (Talyor Swift), a classical Manic Pixie Dream Girl with a yearning to see a real tree, who enthusiastically professes intent to confer her affections on any man who can deliver one. Easier said than done, as the teens are residents of Thneedville, a sterile, corporate managed plastic city that exists as an artificial Main Street USA paradise walled off from the dead, deforested world outside. So Ted is off to see The Once-ler. Several times, actually, so that the plot can cut between the story of The Lorax and the goings on in Thneedville, where Ted's efforts are undercut by evil businessman Aloysius O'Hare, who effectively "rules" Thneedville by selling the Bottled Fresh Air (ha ha) and dreads competition should trees return.

At first, it almost seems like this is going to work. Thneedville's Disney-style plasticene cheerfulness (instead of the drab horror one expects from the post-apocalypse) makes for a great nasty reveal of just how dead the world is outside its walls (and under its surface). The opening song number introducing the town is a brutal parody of consumer culture, as Thneedville's citizens joyfully revel in their own ignorance both of what their lifestyle is covering up and what it has done to the world around them. If this is the film's way around the sad parts, adding humor, but with an Idiocracy-style satirical edge, it'd be a bold move. Then O'Hare shows up and you realize the film intends to chicken out on the condemnation. Thneedville isn't bad, it's just been led astray by The Bad Guy and will happily turn over a new leaf once Ted and Audrey show them the way. You also realize that Thneedville really only exists so that the film can stage the endless, elaborate comedy chase sequences mandatory for 3D animated movies.

So too it goes with The Once-ler, who shows his face in this version and is voiced by Ed Helms. This time around he initially opts to compromise and be friendly with The Lorax and the animals, agreeing to stop cutting trees after the first one and instead harvest the necessary foliage instead. He doesn't, of course, which makes him an even darker character. Not merely callous, but an outright betrayer.

Except he's not, because his culpability has had the edges sanded off just like the folks in Thneedville. See, he's actually a pretty decent guy, his big flaw is wanting to please/impress his awful, obnoxious family members. He employs said family as his startup workforce, and it's their laziness that leads to demands that trees start getting cut once again. They're even a constant presence during what's intended to be Once-ler's villain song, ever reinforcing the notion that there's nothing inherently bad about him and his business just as there's nothing inherently bad about Thneedville, just bad apples pushing people in the wrong direction, easily fixed.

That's cowardly. Part of the reason that the original story mostly comes down to just Once-ler and The Lorax is so they can stand in for bigger groups; we are all The Once-ler. This is also why the book concludes on a call to action and an open ending (which the movie certainly doesn't) to make the reader understand that a happy ending is not guaranteed with this stuff.

You cannot teach an audience a lesson if you're not willing to allow for the possibility of them feeling bad about giving the wrong answer.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

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