October 20, 2011 at 11:12 AM EDT

For 40 years, fans of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax have wondered about The Once-ler.

Exactly who – or what – is attached to those spindly green arms, seen in the 1971 storybook heedlessly chopping down the lush, candy-colored truffula forest? Until now, only the grouchy Lorax (who confronts him declaring, “I speak for the trees!”) could know for sure.

Though the good doctor never showed us The Once-ler’s face, a new Universal movie (out March 2) from the animation team whose credits include Despicable Me and Horton Hears a Who offers a surprising twist to a longtime pop-culture mystery.

Dr. Seuss fans, prepare to lay your eyes on The Once-ler.

Below is how we see him in the Illumination Entertainment movie (click for a larger view), and the surprise is that the Once-ler is not some Grinch-esque monster after all.

Instead, he’s a misguided, fresh-faced young man (voiced by The Office’s Ed Helms), whose destructive actions warp not only his world, but eventually himself. Meanwhile, the smallish, brownish, bossy Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito) pleads and scolds on behalf of Seuss’ curlicue fantasy woodlands, but this story is ultimately about two things: making bad choices, and making amends.

Things start out nicely for the Once-ler, but they take a bad turn when greed begins to dominate him.

The enterprising young Once-ler (whose very name suggests a disposable attitude toward the world) is shown here at the start of his downfall, preparing to chop down his first truffula tuft — which is used to make a garment called a Thneed.

What’s a Thneed? It looks like a bizarre pair of longjohns and serves as a shirt, sock, glove, hat, pillow case, and bicycle-seat-cover. (Seuss explained that a Thneed was simply “a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need.”)

As the Once-ler’s need for Thneeds grows, more and more of the forest disappears beneath his Super-Axe-Hacker machine.

Below is how the young Once-ler appeared in the storybook (and a 1972 hand-drawn TV cartoon), getting scolded by the Lorax as he clutches a freshly knitted Thneed. His remarkably long arms suggest the Once-ler might be a natural NBA star, good at cleaning gutters, or a useful friend to have if you dropped your keys down a storm grate.

Any interpretation of the Once-ler’s face or identity, however,  is bound to stir controversy, certain to clash with the imaginations of some readers. But before fans who pictured The Once-ler differently start squawking like one of the book’s poor Swomee-Swans, let’s allow the filmmakers to explain themselves.

This decision was made after studying some evidence the doctor left behind.

NEXT PAGE: Seuss’ Clues — and MORE movie images!

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