The Christmas Special Day 3: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

How the Grinch Stole ChristmasDirector: Chuck Jones

Writers: Irv Spector & Bob Ogle, based on the book by Dr. Seuss

Cast: Boris Karloff, June Foray

Plot: In the town of Whoville, Christmas is a season beloved by all. The Whos in Whoville gather together to cut down the town tree, decorate the community, and celebrate the season. But not everybody is happy with the season. North of Whoville, in a mountain cave, lives a green creature called the Grinch (Boris Karloff, doing double-duty as the narrator) who hates Christmas with all of his two-sizes-too-small heart. As he watches their celebration begin, he vows to destroy Christmas for everyone. Stitching together a Santa Claus suit and putting “antlers” on his dog Max, the Grinch sweeps into town and begins breaking into houses, stealing every present, every decoration, every morsel of food, even the roast beast. As he goes to work in one house, however, he’s interrupted by little Cindy Lou Who (June Foray).Cindy Lou mistakes him for Santa and asks him why he’s taking their Christmas tree. He tells her he’s bringing the tree to his workshop to repair a broken light, then ushers her off to bed and finishes his insidious task.

The Grinch and Max take their loot to the top of a mountain, where he plans to spy on the Whos as they wake up and find their Christmas ruined. To his shock, though, the Whos come from their houses, join hands, and begin to sing despite their lack of gifts, of trees, of boxes and bags. That’s when it dawns on him… that perhaps Christmas has a deeper meaning than those things one can buy from a store. As his heart fills for the first time in years, his sleigh of toys begins to tip over the side of the mountain. His newfound Christmas spirit gives him the strength to rescue the sleigh and he races back to Whoville to return everything he stole. The Whos welcome him with open arms and even allow him to carve the roast beast.

Thoughts: Like most movies (even short films) that are based on children’s books, when the time came to animate How the Grinch Stole Christmas there was a need to beef up the story considerably in order to make it fill the allotted running time. Fortunately, this is a case where just enough was added to make the story a real classic (as opposed to the 2001 feature film where just enough was added to make the whole thing feel like a waste of time).

Out of all the specials I’m going to talk about this month, this may be the most singularly perfect case of voice casting we’ll see. Boris Karloff, as both the narrator and the Grinch himself, delivers a legitimately flawless performance. The Narrator has the sort of homespun quality you want – it’s like having a grandfather or a gruff uncle calling you around the fireplace to tell you a story. Then he shifts into the Grinch persona, adopting a nasty edge to his timbre that sends him from being your grandfather to that creepy old man down the street you’re really afraid of but feel compelled to pester at Halloween. Complimenting Karloff in the small but vital role of Cindy Lou Who is the legendary June Foray, one of the two greatest voice artists of all time (the other being Mel Blanc, and if you want to rank anybody else above those two you are wrong). Foray gives Cindy Lou a tender innocence that could easily be obnoxious and saccharine, but she imbues it with such sincerity that she’s impossible to dislike. Cindy Lou is the child every parent wishes they could present to Santa Claus down at the mall.

Then there’s the direction. Chuck Jones, perhaps the greatest animator in American history, takes the performances of these voice artists and crafts a beautifully rendered, visually amazing world that perfectly captures the wonderful lunacy of Dr. Seuss’s best work, while still maintaining his own inimitable comedic style. In the antics of the Grinch and his dog Max, you can see the finest moments of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner or of Tom and Jerry, both of whom experienced their best years when directed by Jones.

The Grinch slinks along like a snake in this cartoon, he casually licks his fingers to unscrew a light bulb, and in one of the greatest moments in the special, his face grows into this insidious, far-too-wide grin when he concocts his terrible scheme. This sort of thing is all Jones, all part of his amazing animated style. The action sequences, when he’s racing up and down the mountain in his sled, or where he desperately tries to save the presents at the end… again, Jones is the star here, showing off the potential of animation to tell a story of this nature in a thrilling fashion.

Rounding out a perfect crew was Thurl Ravenscroft, best known as the voice of cereal mascot Tony the Tiger, singing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The song is great in and of itself, but planting it in Ravenscroft’s deep baritone gives it a feeling that no other Christmas song can boast. That song, that performance, is just as famous as any other part of this cartoon, and it’s well-deserved.

This film also passes a rather unique test when it comes to Christmas specials. There are honestly far too few truly original stories out there. We live in a world where half the Christmas stories told are just retreads of A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life. This film is its own story, though, not a parody, which makes it impressive enough. But eventually, it reached the stage where it is the source of parody – plenty of movies and TV shows have spoofed the Grinch over the years. That places it in the upper echelon of Christmas stories, the strata of tale that writers who can’t come up with their own story choose instead to build upon. If that isn’t the sign of a cultural landmark, I don’t know what is.

Don’t forget, The Christmas Special is the third Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!


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