Chuck Jones’ 1966 adaptation of Dr. Seuss‘ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a rarity: a film that both surpasses the source material and is itself flawless—which is why the 2000 live-action remake was a pre-certified disaster.
Chuck Jones made his name with “Looney Tunes” and although he had a lot of competition (Tex Avery foremost), Jones, with his modernist sensibilities, was the best of the lot. Wisely, Jones filters Dr. Seuss’ seditious surrealism through his own pop aesthetics, bringing to the tale superior narrative pacing (it moves like quicksilver), wry wit, expertly judged tension, a gift for expressiveness, and the narration of Boris Karloff, voice acting of June Foray, and raspy singing of Thurl Ravenscroft.
The story is a variation of Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” but that’s just a springboard for Seuss, Jones, and company. With his melodious British lisp and résumé in Gothic fairy tales, Karloff is a masterful storyteller, perhaps the best in animation since Bing Crosby narrated “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1949). Voicing the Grinch, Karloff snarls delightfully, and as the narrator he is an impeccable bedtime story host. Balancing those two makes for his last great role, one that ranks with the Monster, Imhotep, Hjalmar Poelzig, and Cabman Gray.
Casting Karloff was an intuitive coup. Jones, like Henry Selick and Tim Burton, was astutely aware of the connection between Christmas and Halloween. Both come from the Church; one uses the “seen” symbolism of horror as a counter to “unseen” divinity of the second. And of course, both involve children. June Foray is a delight in her small role as Cindy Lou, who could be no more than two. Her sense of wonder is authentic—never saccharine—staring right through the Grinch’s nastiness with big anime eyes (that predate anime). She actually has us rooting for her, as opposed to child stars who we might have been tempted to wish death on (e.g., the tyke in Son of Frankenstein). Ravenscroft makes an art out of insulting the title character in song—which must have been a first—and his work steered the short into a rightly deserved Grammy win for best soundtrack.
Although secular, its anti-consumerism message is as subtle as the Grinch himself—and is still needed today, before we have yet another Black Friday trampling death at Walmart.
Charles Schulz fully embraces the religious tradition in tackling the same anti-consumerism message in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” from the preceding year. There’s little doubt that Schulz’ “Peanuts” series eventually became tiresome and repetitive (remember, “It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown”?) but, with the perfection of this and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” perhaps the great comic strip artist deserved to be allowed to coast. Again, it’s no surprise that these parallel holidays brought out the best in Schulz. The bald-headed, existential Charlie Brown waxes angstfully over the hypocrisy of false Christmas Capitalism, until blanket-toting Linus takes on the role of a Lukian sage to set Charlie, Lucy, Schroeder, and Snoopy right. Curiously, Linus later mixes up that “unseen” of Christmas with the “seen” of Halloween by waiting for a Great Pumpkin that never arrives, but that’s part of the the sublime, idiosyncratic beauty of Schulz’ best characterizations. The Peanuts gang are children, yes, but they have adult-like complexities and inconstancies, too.
Smartly, director Bill Melendez chose actual children to voice the Peanuts gang and deliver that Gospel of Luke message. What could have been rendered agonizingly pretentious or overbearing proselytization is instead filled-to-the-brim with simplistic, joyous charm. There’s nothing at all contrived or bullying about the message which seeks (it doesn’t demand) a Christmas that isn’t shorn of a Christ child.
The musical ribbon that ties it all together is supplied by that tragically short-lived jazz miniaturist Vince Guaraldi who, like Haydn before him, finds a wealth of exhilarating fun in sanctity.