By Anthony Breznican
October 20, 2011 at 11:12 AM EDT
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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!

“[Seuss] gave us the clues on the page,” says The Lorax producer Christopher Meledandri, CEO of Illumination Entertainment, which has worked closely with the author’s estate and widow to begin adapting his books into animation.

Specifically, Meledandri, director Chris Renaud (Despicable Me), and screenwriting duo Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (Hop) found what they were looking for on Page 9.

As in the book, much of the movie is told in flashback, and begins with a boy who lives in the dour, polluted world who goes in search of the aged Once-ler to find out how things went so wrong. (Zac Efron voices the kid in the film, named Ted after Dr. Seuss’ real name — Theodore Geisel.)

The picture above shows the movie-version of the Once-ler in his regretful old age, sporting much longer gloves that cover his arms entirely.

That elderly, decrepit fellow was similarly depicted in the original Seuss illustrations as a pair of eyes between the slats of a boarded up window, and those scenes in the story provided the single strongest piece of evidence that the seemingly furry-limbed villain was human.

Actually, it was his Snuvv that gave it away.

Snuvv?

This rhyme explains it (as much as any Seussian nonsense verse can.) It accompanied a drawing  — seen below — of the Once-ler accepting payment from the boy before telling his tale of woe.

Then he hides what you paid him

away in his Snuvv,

his secret strange hole

in his gruvvulous glove.

“If there was a clear sign this character was something other than human, we would have abided by that,” says Meledandri. “But okay, he’s wearing gloves. You’re not going to put gloves on a monster.”

Making the Once-ler a man, and not some twisted fiend, had a philosophical underpinning as well.

“The minute you make the Once-ler a monster, you allow the audience to interpret that the problem is caused by somebody who is different from me, and it ceases to be a story that is about all of us,” says Meledandri. “Then it’s a story about, ‘Oh I see, the person who led us into the predicament is not a person. It’s somebody very, very different.’ And so it takes you off the hook.”

Meledandri said the author wanted readers to feel that they could change things — both for better and for worse — based on their behavior. We could be The Lorax, we could be the boy, or …

“What I think Ted is saying is: there is a Once-ler in all of us,” Meledandri says.

Choosing Helms as the voice was a way to further lend him an everyman quality.

NEXT PAGE: Providing the voice — Once-ler more, with feeling

The Lorax was one of Helms’ favorite books as a child. Who can resist that surly little fellow?

So when he heard the movie was being made he was willing to take any role at all. “They offered the Once-ler and I was totally floored,” the actor said, especially since he, like many, had long wondered about the Once-ler’s identity. “If you are a fan of Dr. Seuss, it is one of those mysteries, and to his credit it was a beautiful mystery he left,” the actor says.

Helms is known for playing nice guys who often get in over their heads — Andy Bernard on The Office, the perpetually victimized Stu in The Hangover movies, poor, naive Tim Lippe in Cedar Rapids. Now you can add the Once-ler to that list. It’s why Helms and the filmmakers chose not to do an outrageous voice for the character. “That was a conscious decision to just be me, be an average person,” the actor says. “I felt that was the best representation for the young Once-ler.”

“He’s pure of heart when we meet him. He has no nefarious agenda,” Meledandri adds. “He’s just going off to follow his path and seize his piece of the American dream. He’s in this frontier doing that, in this beautiful setting. Had he not been carried away by greed, everything would have gone okay.”

That makes the Once-ler rare among animated villains — he is more blindly tragic than blatantly evil as he decimates the Brown Bar-ba-loots and Swomee-Swans (seen behind him in the photo at the top of this story) that populate Seuss’ truffula tree woodlands. “The old Once-ler is kind of stricken with grief over his own legacy, and what he has done,” Helms says. “There is a little more poignancy there.”

In Seuss’ book, the Once-ler calls on his entire family (seen in this drawing, knitting away) to help him as his Thneed enterprise grows, and this provided the filmmakers with another way to explore the villain’s unhappy backstory.

“When the Once-Ler has realized that this crazy invention of his is taking off, he makes a call to his family, and in that call he talks to them about how they’re all going to be rich, and invites them to participate,” Meledandri explains. “So we imagined, it would be a family that is motivated themselves by greed.”

The fact that they’re all sporting gruvvulous gloves? “They absolutely wear their desires on their sleeve,” Meledandri jokes.

The Once-ler has an overbearing mother who “basically gave him the message that his ideas were inane, and they would never work,” Meledandri says. “This helps us understand how the Once-ler would become a person who could be seduced down the wrong path. He’s filling a hole in himself.”

The saddest thing of all is that he knew what he was doing, and did it anyway. The Lorax warned him.

As Seuss says near the end of the book:

Unless someone like you

cares a whole awful lot

nothing is going to get better

it’s not.

Let’s hear from you, readers: Do you care a whole awful lot about this new version of The Once-ler?

Follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter: @Breznican

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