Sometimes reviewing is hard. It’s easy to explain what I liked or disliked about a game, movie, or show in simple terms. Every now and then I come across a certain stumbling block: the classic.
When I’m dealing with something so popular, praised and iconic, it requires deeper analyzing and understanding. I don’t want to do it any injustice, but I also want to avoid filling space with pontification and purple prose, the way a college student might dance through a professor’s writing assignment.
Enter How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The 1966 animated Christmas special is a Classic, one that will have been part of our cultural consciousness for fifty years on December 18th. Most of what I review is around 90 minutes long, or 30-40 hours if I’m going over a video game. Grinch runs 26 minutes, yet the machine is so deep and intricate that this gentleman has his work cut out for him.
Fair warning: spoilers abound, though I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t seen How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, or barring that, doesn’t know the story.
The Grinch is a hermit who lives in a mountain cave above ‘Whoville,’ a village conveniently curved into a cul-de-sac so he sees and hears everything. Grinch hates people, noise, activity and happiness. I’d go as far as to call him a masochist since he’s been putting up with his despised Whos of Whoville for 53 years. He seems addicted to misery.
What the Grinch hates most, above all else, is Christmas. That’s when the Whos are at their loudest and most boisterous. They bustle around with their busybody shopping and decorating and banging on their weird toys. Once they’re done with that they gather in a circle, hold hands and make joyful noise. It’s enough to drive a misanthrope like the Grinch to take drastic measures.
He decides to have a peaceful December 25th for once by ruining Christmas. His idea is that the holiday is defined and perpetuated by commercialism, and thus taking away the Whos’ material possessions will shut the holiday down. Grinch dresses in a Santa suit, forces his long-suffering dog into a reindeer costume and rides down to Whoville on a sleigh. There he proceeds to steal every present, ornament, decoration and food item from the village. Then he scurries back up the mountain to prepare himself for the backlash.
Instead, the Whos still come out of their houses to ring in Christmas regardless of being robbed. Touched by their humanity, Grinch returns the presents and decorations to everyone. They welcome him with open arms.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas! works for three reasons. First is its pure optimism. Stealing toys and decorations is one thing; it takes extra evil to run off the food as well. Ever tried shopping for Christmas dinner on December 25th? Of course not. Yet in the face of an unprecedented disaster, the Whos continue singing together because they still have each other. When the Grinch comes rushing down the mountain, enlightened and redeemed, he is forgiven and invited to dinner.
Sad as it is, that outcome would likely never happen in our good ol’ capitalist, consumerist, vengeful society. In today’s greed saturated culture, anybody who wakes up to their kid’s $500 Apple gadget being stolen is not going to be in the mood for fellowship, unity, and especially not forgiveness. They’d be out to murder the Grinch. The ending would be bleak and morose, exactly what the Grinch expects. Try to imagine the Twitter blasting.
The reality of this awful entitled gimmie generation has a positive inverse effect on How the Grinch Stole Christmas: as we get worse, the movie ages better. It gives hope for a better future where we might realize how important our friends and families are over shiny, noisy crap. The example it gives sets an important precedent.
Second, How the Grinch Stole Christmas has a talented supergroup behind it. First and foremost is Theodore ‘Dr. Seuss’ Geisel, who wrote the original story and serves as executive producer here. Most of the source material is read verbatim by Boris Karloff, who narrates and also voices the Grinch. Geisel’s poetry provides a rich timelessness to the narrative while Karloff easily switches between kind storyteller and sly British villain to perfection. Put together, Geisel’s writing and Karloff’s voice are a perfect match.
Adding to that is animation veteran Chuck Jones as director. Jones adds a Loony Tunes flavor to the Grinch character, turning him into a hybrid of Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote. It’s a heinous crime the Grinch is up to, but giving him the personality, mannerisms and animation of a classic Warner Brothers bumbler definitely takes the hurt off.
The uncredited Thurl Ravenscroft provides the baritone vocals for the famous “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch,” which gets repeated radio airplay every year during the holidays. This song seems a strange anomaly, being a Christmas track that has nothing to do with Christmas and everything to do with how horrible one person happens to be. ‘Tis the season? Even “Fairytale of New York” has the word ‘Christmas’ in the lyrics.
Despite that, “You’re a Mean One…” is a Christmas song because How the Grinch Stole Christmas! has become a part of our Christmas heritage, thanks in no small part to the smart people who put it together. To hear the song is to remember a special that has entertained many generations; the memories surrounding it emerge from there.
Third, there are no questions that need answering. Normally I’d be listing them all and deducting points for the lack of payoffs. What motivated Grinch to live on the mountain in the first place? Was he a good man who lost his way? If he hates Whoville so much, why has he lived there for 53 years? Wait, isn’t he returning gifts to the wrong children? How long would it take to reassemble a whole village that way?
The 1966 Grinch tells us everything we need to know and wraps it up with an upbeat ending in less than half an hour. We don’t need an extended Grinch tragedy explained, nor do we need to see how the Whos react when they wake up to their barren houses. This is a case where simplicity is best. The Grinch is a monster; good, selfless people bring him around. The Whos are so quick to start celebrating, it is as if they saw the aftermath, shrugged, and went outside anyway. It can’t get much more endearing than that. Given the choice between this and the 2000 Ron Howard/Jim Carrey version, ’66 Grinch is my obvious choice. The worst thing the live action movie did was give any of this clarification.
Altogether, talent, poignancy, humor and simplicity sync together to make How the Grinch Stole Christmas! a prime rib holiday special. It steals my heart, and I’d have to be nuts to purge it from my collection. It not only deserves all the praise it gets, but also the first solid ‘A’ since I started this review project.
FINAL GRADE: A