Jacob's Favorite Christmas Films: #5. "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (1966)
What a total and complete triumph of adaptation.
The final TV special entry on this list is the kind of collaboration you'd only dream of. The creation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas as a Christmas special feels like a story akin to the creation of a musical supergroup like The Traveling Wilburys (weird analogy, but bare with me). Sure, it sounds cool on paper that Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty joined forces to create a band, but how awesome is it that the resulting music is pretty great? In that same way, hearing that legendary animator Chuck Jones reached out to Dr. Seuss and that they agreed to create an animated special together sounds like a match made in heaven. And in execution, it's perfect.
Perfect might seem like a strong word, but when you consider how Chuck Jones appropriately expanded on the source material with the help of Dr. Seuss, it's amazing they squeezed twenty minutes out of this (just watch what awful nightmares are conjured up when you try and make a feature length movie out of it in 2000). Chuck Jones was literally one of the most talented animated storytellers in the world, able to create heart and humor out of cartoon setups as bizarre as a frog that sings "Hello! Ma Baby." Jones was a genius and figured out a way to expand the simple storybook into something just long enough to fit on TV with commercials.
On top of that creativity was Jones' ability to translate Dr. Seuss' abstract visuals into animation properly, making impossible geography as natural as any real thing the cartoon also depicts. And then there's Jones' innate understanding of dogs. This is a weird thing to dedicate a paragraph too, but it's worth bringing up. Chuck Jones was one of the best in the business at animating dogs and their body language, and the Grinch's dog Max is one of his greatest triumphs. Max is hilarious and full of heart, a fully realized animated canine in every possible way.
Chuck Jones' genius can never be overstated, but this was still Dr. Seuss' creation. He wrote all of the songs in the special, showing off just how incredible he was at writing rhyming lyrics. It's weird to think of Dr. Seuss as an incredible songwriter, but he was at the core of the creative spark here. He went to pretty extreme lengths too, going as far as modeling the opening song's chorus on the sound of the Latin language. The real standout song though is the recurring "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." It's hilariously written, but expertly performed by Thurl Ravenscroft, the original voice of Tony the Tiger. His deep bass voice sends the song directly into the most permanent parts of your memory.
On the subject of voice actors though, the greatest stroke of genius was hiring Boris Karloff to be the narrator and the voice of the Grinch. It's funny to think that Dr. Seuss initially objected to the casting, afraid that Karloff would be too scary for kids. He might have been onto something, but the Grinch's deeper voice was created in post-production by altering the pitch of Karloff's voice. The real voice of Karloff is the voice of the narrator, and it's full of emotion and range. It's amazing to think that the voice behind Frankenstein's monster and the mummy Imhotep could fill your heart with wonder, but that's the magic of Boris Karloff.
Just like A Charlie Brown Christmas before it, How the Grinch Stole Christmas created a blueprint for adapting a particular style to animation. How the Grinch Stole Christmas wasn't the first adaptation of Dr. Seuss' work, but it was arguably the first to find huge mainstream success and led to the adaptation of more and more stories for television, and eventually film.
It's strange to scrutinize an adaptation of a children's book, but How the Grinch Stole Christmas stands as the greatest adaptation of Dr. Seuss' work. Most importantly though, it stands as a great lesson about Christmas and the community that it should foster, placing the importance of friendship over material things.
And having Chuck Jones along for the ride to create endlessly entertaining visual gags always helps.