Who wants roast beast?
There have been dozens, if not hundreds of half-hour animated Christmas TV specials that have fallen into obscurity, never becoming cherished classics or advertising cash cows their creators hoped they would be. (I have a feeling Hardrock, Coco and Joe or The Shanty Where Santa Claus Lives won’t air on TNT this year.) But one special that has stood the test of time is 1966’s Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. What is the secret of this one’s success? There are several, actually.
The Grinch lives on a mountain outside of Whoville. He spends his days, it seems, hating the Whos. The Grinch especially hates Christmas, and all the noise the Whos will make on Christmas morning with their new toys, their massive family get-togethers, and their festive holiday singing. So he comes up with an especially Grinchy plan. Donning a homemade Santa Claus outfit, the Grinch makes his way from home to home at night on Christmas Eve, stealing presents, trees, food, and anything else relating to the holiday. Has he succeeded in stealing Christmas, or do the Whos have a merry surprise waiting for him?
The first key to success for How the Grinch Stole Christmas is, of course, Dr. Seuss. With both his tongue-twisting rhymes and unique cartooning style, Seuss (a.k.a. Theodore Geisel) had a knack for creating truly original characters and stories. Whether it’s the laid back cool of the Cat in the Hat, the unhinged persuasiveness of Sam I Am and his green eggs and ham, or a Yertle the Turtle and his metaphor-laced giant tower, Seuss’s characters are always standouts, ones you still remember years after you’ve read them. The simplicity of these characters, including those in The Grinch, is the best thing working for them. Following that is Seuss’s words and rhymes, which, although slightly skewed, are still catchy and memorable.
The process of adaptation can be a tricky one. Too often, when a classic book is translated to the screen, the story ends up gutted, losing that which made it a classic in the first place. Fortunately, this special had its second key to success: animator Chuck Jones, the creative force behind many of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. Jones’s claims to fame have always been characterization and humor, both of which he brought to The Grinch in force. It’s one thing to know what the Grinch looks like, but Jones made the character lifelike in how he moves, how he holds his hands, his facial reactions, and so on.
There’s an extended comedy sequence in the middle of the special featuring some of Jones’s trademark slapstick as the Grinch and his dog-turned-reindeer Max sled recklessly down a steep, snowy hill. Other than that, the rest of the show sticks fairly well to Seuss’s book. Jones made the characters, their various gizmos, and the backgrounds “Seussian” enough so that there’s no problem identifying them as the good doctor’s creations. That he was able to do that with his own madcap sensibilities in mind shows just how talented Jones was.
The third and final key of success arrives thanks to the voice acting. Already famous for portraying monsters, Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Mummy) nailed his performance here, both as the Grinch and as the narrator. You can tell Karloff really “gets” Seuss’s style. He makes the oddball words and rhymes sound perfectly natural, and you never once get the feeling that he’s merely reading to you from a storybook. Backing up Karloff are Thurl Ravenscroft (the voice of Tony the Tiger) singing the “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” song, and veteran voice actress June Foray (The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle) as lil’ Cindy Lou Who.
I’ve heard there were complaints about the picture quality on previous DVD releases, so you might be glad to know that this disc features a brand-new transfer, and, wow, I’m impressed. All the colors are remarkably bright and vivid, and there’s not a scratch, speck, or bit of grain anywhere to be seen. The sound is also good, making the most of the bass whenever Ravenscroft’s deep voice kicks in.
For extras, know that some have been ported over from a previous release and some are new. The new material is highlighted by “From Whoville to Hollywood,” a featurette about the life of Dr. Seuss and the eventual creation the Grinch book and TV special. There are all sorts of fascinating tidbits about his life here that I never knew before. I could have done without the rapping narrator, but maybe that’s just me. Also new are text biographies of Seuss, Jones, and Karloff, as well as a “jump to your favorite song” screen, which, unfortunately, only plays the first part of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
Carried over the former release, there’s the TNT featurette about how the special was made, hosted by the late Phil Hartman. It features interviews from most of the participants, and Hartman even gets to work some funny shtick into it. The music featurette has Ravenscroft and composer Albert Hague discussing their involvement, and how the music was written and performed. The “pencil tests” are only two drawings of the Grinch, made to look far too small on your screen. Kind of disappointing considering how much of this stuff must still be out there.
Finally, for an extra bonus treat, there’s the 1970 special, Horton Hears a Who, based on Seuss’s book of the same name, and again directed by Jones. It’s plenty charming enough in its way, and the message of “a person’s a person no matter how small” is a good one, but this one didn’t have quite the same energy as the Grinch. Still, it’s nice to have on the disc for anyone craving some additional Seuss/Jones action. This too was also included on the previous Grinch disc.
The previous DVD featured a commentary track from actress June Foray and animator Phil Roman, which hasn’t been included in this one. For whoever made that decision, I hope the Grinch visits him or her on Christmas Eve.
With How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Seuss crafted a tale that just about everyone can relate to, even though it takes place in a strange world filled with Whos and a scary green Grinch. The reason for this is simple: We are all the Grinch. We all hate the holidays a least a little, don’t we? The oppressive marketing, the hectic schedules, and, yes, the noise can bug even the kindest among us. Seeing the Grinch in action in this classic can help us vent those feelings, while also remembering what’s good about this time of year.
Also, it’s just a lot of fun.