HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! (1966)

  • Director: Chuck Jones
  • Writer: Dr. Suess, based on his children’s book
  • Starring: Boris Karloff, June Foray, Dallas McKennon, and Thurl Ravenscroft
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Peacock, stream with cable subscription on Freeform app, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is justifiably seen today as an absolute classic, which a fairly substantial proportion of the population can probably recite from memory. This was not something that was obvious prior to its creation. The prior foray into the film world by beloved children’s author Theodore Geisel, better known as “Dr. Suess,” was The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, for which Suess wrote the screenplay, which was universally seen as a huge disaster. Suess was reluctant to let any of his work be adapted thereafter, until he was talked into the Grinch special by his friend Chuck Jones, with whom he worked on a series of “training cartoons” during World War II. CBS came to Jones asking for a holiday animated special immediately after the surprise success of A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, and gave Jones a budget several times that of the prior special. What they got in return ended up deeply, deeply weird, but hit a nerve, to the point that few today don’t know the meaning of Suess’ made-up term: “Grinch.” 

That Chuck Jones is not as much of a household name as Suess himself is an injustice. Along with Walt Disney, Jones is possibly the greatest American animator to ever live. In 1996 a book came out called the The 50 Greatest Cartoons, after consulting with various industry professionals, and ten of the fifty entries were directed by Jones. Most of his greatest work was made during his time with Warner Bros., especially during the 1950s, with his directed shorts including Duck Amuck, Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, Rabbit of Seville, and What’s Opera, Doc? After the success of Grinch, he went on to direct another Suess special, Horton Hears a Who?, an anti-xenophobia story that was apparently intended by Dr. Suess as an allegory for the American occupation of Japan. That conservative voices in the US came so vociferously to Suess’ defense a while back, railing against the charge that there was any politics in Suess’ work, made me think they had never actually read a Dr. Suess book. I mean, this is the guy who wrote The Lorax, for pete’s sake.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is only 25 minutes or so long and has several musical interludes, which is to say there isn’t much to it from a plot perspective. The Grinch is a green furry monster thing who lives up on a mountain above “Whoville,” where all the Whos live, and he wants to stop them from having Christmas because they are super loud and annoy him, so he dresses his silly dog Max up as a reindeer and breaks into everyone’s houses in a Santa outfit for the purpose of basically reverse Santa-ing them and taking all their decorations and presents. But when he sees that, despite all this, the Whos still seem happy. His “heart grew three sizes that day,” we hear, as he realizes that maybe “Christmas isn’t about presents or boxes or bags.” Then he joins in the town Christmas celebration, including carving the “roast beast.” So basically it’s the story of a man ostracized by society who just wants to be left alone.

I kid, but there really is a message here, no matter how many might wish there wasn’t, which is that consumerism is out of control and that “the real meaning of Christmas,” as it were, is being together. This was actually pretty radical in a couple of ways, both because, you know, this was 1966, and consumerism was the opposite of communism and therefore generally a good thing, and also because this is a Christmas special about the “true meaning of Christmas” that entirely leaves religion out of it. Togetherness and love wasn’t the takeaway from the A Charlie Brown Christmas, which climaxes with the famous scene of Linus reciting from the Gospel of Luke. That Christmas might have been inside all of us all along wasn’t necessarily at the central place in the culture in 1966 that it may be now, is what I’m saying.

The special’s enduring popularity has also been assisted by the music, especially the central song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, which even after several decades’ worth of hip-hop remains the greatest diss track of all time. Even those who don’t know Ravenscroft’s name will instantly recognize his deep voice. Also appearing is the great Boris Karloff, who both narrates the special and provides the Grinch’s brief dialogue.

The relatively brief Grinch TV special may be easy to forget these days, eaten by its own popularity and inevitable commodification. There was a somewhat over-the-top live-action feature starring Jim Carrey under a mountain of make-up (directed by Ron Howard), a later feature cartoon with the main character voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, and a Broadway musical that eventually received a somewhat disastrous live TV special starring the guy from Glee for some reason. Before all this the original rights holders tried twice to cash in on the original special’s popularity with two sequels, Halloween Is Grinch Night and The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat. And you thought that The Avengers was “the ultimate crossover.” But the original TV special remains far and away the best of all these, and if you disagree you are wrong, sorry.

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