The Once-ler is ready for his close-up.
Previously incarnated only as a pair of long green arms in Dr. Seuss' storybook The Lorax, this villain will appear in the flesh — or is it fur? — in the big-screen 3-D adaptation planned for release in March 2012.
The 1971 book revealed the Once-ler as a greedy creature who visits a colorful forest full of Truffala trees and begins chopping them down to harvest their tufts, only to wipe out every last one — and the frolicking Bar-ba-loots, Humming-fish and Swomee-Swans to boot.
The tale starts with a boy visiting the aged Once-ler as he recounts how he long ago ignored the preachy little Lorax, who appeared at the start of the reckless chopping to "speak for the trees."
The movie will begin the same way, says producer Chris Meledandri, head of Illumination Animation. "What he finds, just like in the book, is this wonderful set of arms emerging from this boarded-up window, with these yellow eyes," Meledandri says. "And then, at a pivotal moment, the character is revealed."
Seuss (real name Theodore Geisel) never drew what he thought the Once-ler really looked like, says the author's widow, Audrey, who is co-producing the film. "That was Ted, and that was wonderful: long spindly arm coming out of the Lerkim up there," she says, using the book's term for the Once-ler's lair.
Ed Helms of The Office will voice the Once-ler, and Danny DeVito will play the Lorax, described in the book as: "shortish. And oldish/And brownish. And mossy" who "spoke with a voice/ that was sharpish and bossy."
"The Lorax certainly has this very lofty mission, the protector of the trees and all things natural," Meledandri says. "But his personality is ... he's a bit gruff and grouchy. He should be. He's losing."
The film expands Seuss' story to give the curious unnamed boy more of a back story, dubbing him Ted (after the author) and giving him a grandmother (voiced by Betty White) who recalls the days when the world was clean and full of life. Zac Efron voices the boy.
"They live in an outrageously artificial world where all things natural have been replaced by plastic and steel. It's like living in Las Vegas," Meledandri jokes.
The movie becomes a quest as the boy first seeks out the Once-ler, then goes in search of the Lorax, who vanished after the last of the trees were destroyed. There may be hope yet in restoring what was lost — an idea the book suggested but left open-ended.
There may even be sympathy for the bad guy. "The character of the Once-ler really started out with very reasonable goals," Meledandri says. "He set out to make his mark, be successful. He had a dream he wanted to achieve. Then he became successful, but he got swept up and bitten by the bug of greed."
Helms will voice the Once-ler as the naive early businessman and the crooked, greedy monster slipped over to the dark side. "He goes from a young man to a much older man who wants redemption," Meledandri says.
Seuss gave The Lorax a very direct social message. "He wasn't a woodsman and wasn't a hunter, but his father had run the zoo in Springfield, Mass.," Audrey Geisel says. "And from that he began a lifelong interest in animals and preservation of their surroundings."
That's why this book, which urges children to take care of the environment, was particularly important to him. "We all go forth from what we had or knew when were children," she says, "whether we give credit or not."