14 December 2008

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

d. Chuck Jones / USA / 26 mins.

Theodore Geisel and Charles Martin Jones – today better known respectively as Dr. Seuss and Chuck – were a wicked force in combination. Theirs was not a long-standing partnership, like other illustrators and animators, but their work together bears the best hallmarks of each. None is more popular or more widely known than their 1966 collaboration on the half-hour television special of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which the two adapted from Seuss's book of the same name.

In many respects, The Grinch is the yang to the yin of A Charlie Brown Christmas. The latter, adapted by Bill Melendez and Charles Schulz from Schulz's Peanuts comic strip, premiered only one year earlier. Both are about characters who discover the holidays are more valuable than commercialism and mere presents and decorations. Both brought together a popular illustrator with a popular animator, but they take decidedly different routes to acquiring their hearts. Charlie Brown embraces the literal and biblical meaning of Christmas and disinfects the commercialism away while reaching a satisfying middle ground of reason-for-the-season happiness and kindness. The Grinch is bathed in a surreal and mythical world of Whos and Grinches (or rather, one Grinch and a dog). The Whos are the townspeople in a valley below a mountaintop where the Grinch lives, and all we need to know for the special to have any resonance is that the Whos love Christmas and Grinch can't stand it. He is so anti-Christmas that he plots to steal it from them and spoil their morning joy, until his plan is rendered obsolete by their joy in spite of his thievery. The plot is absent any religiosity whatsoever but not missing an iota of the purity in kindness and heart that Christmas is meant to inspire. In many ways, the Whos gathering around the town tree – joining hands, and singing "Fahoo Foray" – is as arresting to the senses in its wondrous simplicity as Linus's tender and earnest rendition of the Gospel of Luke.

Both specials are great, but The Grinch is better. In addition to the remarkable poetry of Seuss's language and the incomparable voice-over by Boris Karloff, each frame brims with the endless possibilities of Jones's imagination. Like Seuss's writing, which contains no extraneous lines, the art produced and supervised by Jones is equally secure in its exact place. No matter how arbitrary something may seem, time and time again The Grinch proves itself to be an entire feast for the eyes. Perhaps it would not be fair to say Jones is the most influential animator of the twentieth century (the competition is wondrous and large), but he is certainly among the best, and this special – today as widely seen, circulated, and parodied as his contributions to the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts at Warner Bros. – is a golden testament to his skill as a director. The still drawings are as finely crafted as the animation (the "stealing" of Christmas is the most pleasurable aspect of the special), and it's in the seamless hybrid of the Grinch as both a sort-of animal and a sort-of human that brings him to life. He is unseemly but elegant, slithering and disgustingly green but with impeccable posture.

Only three voices get spotlight treatment, and the most prominent of those is Karloff, who earned his immortality in the Universal horror films of the 1930s. His textured baritone voice is the perfect as both the narrator and the Grinch. It is not widely known that Karloff didn't sing the famous song "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," which was actually performed by Thurl Ravenscroft (known better as the voice of Tony the Tiger in Kellogg's television commercials). Bizarrely, Ravenscroft received no on-screen credit for his singing, so it was as unknown then as it is today, which led to Seuss personally sending letters to newspaper columnists so Ravenscroft would get his due. June Foray, a veteran voice artist who would contribute to Hanna-Barbara cartoons among others, has a small part as the voice of Cindy Lou Who.

Seuss's 1957 book and the 1966 special with Jones are both mainstays in our culture, certainly popular around Christmastime as a holiday tradition but entertaining as twisted parables any day of the year, much like Frank Capra's timeless (and season-less) classic It's a Wonderful Life. His literary output totaled more than 60 books, which collectively have sold more than 220 million copies worldwide. As far as English-speaking peoples are concerned, I'd wager a vast majority of men, women, and children are familiar with the man's works, even if inadvertently so. The word grinch, as any dictionary will tell you, is defined as "one who spoils the pleasure of others" and its etymology can be traced directly back to its first usage, in Seuss's 1957 book, where he made-up the word that has become so popular it is now wholly generic.

I referred above to Seuss's writing as poetry, which might make a few of my poet friends cringe, but as a writer, he employed the rigorous mechanics and tools of poetry as skillfully and as lyrically as anyone else writing in the twentieth century. His work is ostensibly for children, but perhaps those who reap the most intellectual pleasure from it are adults. Seuss made-up words left and right, but his work can be scanned for precise meter and rhythm, and heaven knows he receives much more circulation than most American poets outside Robert Frost. Seuss's writing is concise and compact, and like most poetry, doesn't withstand the addition of more words or ideas than it already contains; this is why Seuss's works translate the best in the short-film format and explains why so many feature-length adaptations of his work fail so miserably. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a rare treasure because it is such a lively and brilliant adaptation of material that was already so lively and brilliant. As simple as that sounds, it's damn near impossible to pull off. But then again, Seuss and Jones together are like lightning striking twice.


Jason 14 December, 2008  

I am loving the Christmas Special reviews as of late. I have watched both A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas multiple times in the last few weeks, and your well-written reviews of them have been a joy to read this Christmas season.

Daniel Getahun 14 December, 2008  

Wow, Tony the Tiger is the Grinch?

I looove that song.

Farzan 15 December, 2008  

Love this movie, I use to watch it alot when I was little. Good review

FilmDr 15 December, 2008  

Nice post. I have always identified with the Grinch. He has the right attitude towards Christmas, and its a shame he has to reform. He's a good role model for a film critic. Will you cover Rudolph next?

T.S. 15 December, 2008  

Thanks for the feedback, folks. I do agree, FilmDr, that the Grinch is a reasonable model for film critics; we typically have our own ideas of what is best for the public at-large even though its heart and mind is elsewhere.

As for Rudolph ... I'm not sure if I'll be going that far. Charlie Brown and The Grinch are about the only two that I enjoy, although I do have a soft spot for the misfit toys. Christmas will probably stop here for me, excepting of course It's a Wonderful Life and maybe Casablanca, since Bogart's birthday is December 25.

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