Thanks to the Hallmark Channel, Lifetime, and Freeform (formerly ABC family, in one of the worst network renaming attempts since the Sci-Fi Channel adopted Sy-Fy), there is no shortage of brand new Christmas movies to watch on TV each year. However, some of the truly great specials aren’t live action rom-coms or drama stories, but animated films for the whole family. While not every single animated Christmas special isn’t destined to become a classic ( I’m looking at you, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer), the best ones have been with us for almost half a century. Joining the very top of that list is a feature about a green skinned curmudgeon, known only as The Grinch. In fact along with “Scrooge” few characters in the past 100 years or so has been so able to successfully integrate himself with Christmas, as the Grinch, so much so that like that old British miser, his name becomes shorthand for someone who hates Christmas.
Based on the story by the prolific children’s author Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas was a natural choice. Every kid grows up with the books of Dr. Seuss, and they always have a favorite. For me, it was always the Grinch. Sure Cat in the Hat was fun, and Sam I Am in Green Eggs and Ham was a lesson in perseverance, but there was always something about the Grinch that appealed to me more. So much so that we owned to copies in my household because I staked my claim and wrote my initials in the front cover in crayon, and when you’re three years old, nothing shows ownership more than scrawling some semblance of your name on a favorite book to make it “yours.”
We all know by now, that the Grinch hates Christmas and even more than that, he hates the Who’s whole celebration. So, one Christmas Eve he resolves to steal Christmas from them, by dressing like Santa, he heads down to Whoville with his dog, Max and takes everything from the Who’s. His plan is nearly fouled when a small who girl named Cindy Lou catches him in the act and asks why he is stealing their tree.
The Grinch, ever the master, lies to her, saying he’s taking it back to fix it and continues in his scheme. Then he heads back up mountain to toss it all down and that is when he hears all the Whos down in the circle singing. The Grinch is baffled by this as he believes he had stolen the holiday from them but he soon quickly learns that ‘Christmas doesn’t come from a store, and that maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more.” Then the Grinch hurries back to town and returns everything he stole, he becomes a much loved member of the community, even carving the roast beast for dinner.
Not only was the special based on the book by the acclaimed children’s author Dr. Seuss, the special was produced and animated by another beloved figure of childhood, Chuck Jones. Best known for his Looney Tunes cartoons, Jones was a natural fit for the Grinch. His stylistic fingerprints can be felt on each and every character, and his humorous, zany and rubber like quality lends itself well to Seuss’ eclectic looking art style. One can look at the Grinch’s conniving sneer and see a line to Wyle E. Coyote plotting to take down the Road Runner, or see the same sweetness in Cindy Lou that Jones brought to Tweety Bird.
Jones also had a greater advantage then other early Christmas specials. There were some vocal inconsistencies in Rudolph are notable, and the production hassles and budget problems that besieged A Charlie Brown Christmas are well documented. Grinch had a much higher budget that bordered on a theatrical short quality, and had the full support of MGM to back it, while Rankin/Bass’s productions and Melendez/Mendelson’s work with Charlie Brown veered more towards independent productions.
Leading the way as the voice of the Grinch and the story’s narrator was the horror legend Boris Karloff. Best known as the original Frankenstein’s monster, Karloff actually had a much softer side to him, as he hosted a children’s radio show and even would dress as Father Christmas for children and a Baltimore hospital. Thus between his natural personality and his iconic voice, he was the right choice for the Grinch. His voice gave the Grinch the right bit of a creepiness, so much so that you could feel his own smile come across his face as he reads that the “Grinch got a wonderful awful idea”.
Despite what the opening credits say, it was hardly one man production. Voicing Cindy Lou Who is animation legend, June Foray. Best known for her rolls as Rocky the Squirrel and Natasha Fatale in Rocky and Bull Winkle, Granny in the Looney Tunes cartoons and Magica DeSpell in DuckTales, she was able to vonvey Cindy’s innocence and trustworthiness so much that you almost want the Grinch to call of his whole plan right then and there.
Also joining them was Thurl Ravenscroft, best known as Tony the Tiger for Frosted Flakes cereal, who sang the classic song “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch”. The lyrics for that song, and all others in the special were all written by Dr. Seuss himself, and composed by Albert Hauge who brought a nice bit of campy swing to the proceedings that went along perfectly with Seuss exuberant , zippy rhyming scheme. Meanwhile their silly nonsense words of “Fahoo,Fores, Dahoo dores ” and “Fahu, ramus, Dahu Damus” in “Welcome Christmas” sound almost like Latin lyrics that would be sung in Christmas hymn.
Unlike the live action film by Ron Howard, we aren’t given much in terms of why the Grinch steals Christmas or why the people of Whoville are so quick to forgive him. After all, he did commit a most extreme form of theft, as well as breaking and entering. However, that is not, and never was the point of the story.
We see early on as the Grinch complains about all the “noise noise noise’ of the holiday and all the trimmings and trappings. The Grinch hates the same things about Christmas that made Charlie Brown so depressed. It’s the same things that make all of us depressed, angry and frustrated at Christmas time. If we are completely honest we don’t like the pushing and shoving or the mad chaos. One bad family gathering and we find ourselves vowing’ never again”, only to do it all again next year.
Why? Because despite the noise and chaos, and all the trimmings and trappings, deep down we like having a season that is about giving. As Grinch learns, Christmas isn’t about the commercialized aspects but something a little more. What is it about? Well the Who’s song sums it perfectly:
Christmas day is in our grasp So long as we have hands to clasp
Christmas day will always be Just so long as we have we.
As long as those special people in our lives, be it friend or family member, the true light of Christmas will always come, even without packages, boxes, or bags. It’s those people who urge us to give of ourselves every day, and more importantly can help our hearts grow three sizes and find a strength we never knew we could have. It’s amazing that a silly kids story like this could be so much, but it only shows the genius of Dr. Seuss. Couple it together with such legends as Chuck Jones, Boris Karloff and June Foray and add in Albert Hague as composer and you had a special for the ages. Happy 50th Anniversary, Mr. Grinch. I guess if you’ve been around this long you really aren’t such a mean one after all.