How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
Written by Dr. Seuss
Directed by Chuck Jones & Ben Washam
This is my favorite of the classic Christmas animated specials. When I was in the middle of my childhood, in 1988, I think that TNT bought the rights to the Grinch and aired it exclusively on their network. As stated before, I grew up without cable television, and so I’m not sure how I saw this special and remember it so well. I’d like to attribute that to how well animated and written the story is, and so it ingrained itself firmly in my memories. The special came back to broadcast in 2000 on The WB and has floated around networks like ABC and its current home NBC.
The grumbly, antisocial Grinch lives atop Mt. Crumpit, watching the denizens of Whoville from his cave. He despises their seemingly endless joy, especially around the Christmas season. The Grinch tells his dog Max of how the Whos will go about their happy Christmas celebrations culminating in a mass sing-along that regularly drives him into a rage. This year is different, though, with the Grinch planning to pose as Santa and break into the Whos’ homes and steal every last bit of the holiday from them. The Grinch anticipates the cries of anguish, but during his nighttime theft, he begins to discover things about himself and these people he didn’t expect.
The first thing that stands out about this cartoon is the gorgeous animation by legend Chuck Jones. For anyone with a cursory knowledge of American animation, Jones is very well-known for his decades-long work on Warner Brothers Looney Tunes. His character designs have become the iconic look for that stable of characters. Chuck Jones moved the characters less from their early “looney” portrayals to more structured and thought out gags. If you look at Daffy Duck’s early appearances, you see him as a complete basket case, but most people are more familiar with the crabby, grumpy version now.
When Jones left Warner Brothers in the 1960s, he worked on Tom & Jerry shorts for the television cartoon series. He also began to make more experimental animations like The Dot and The Line, which won an Academy Award. By 1966, he was hired to produce & direct the first television adaptation of a Dr. Seuss book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Once again, his animations combined with Seuss’s character designs became iconic, and any cartoon of Seuss’s stories references them.
There is no backstory given in the cartoon other than “The Grinch does not like the Whos,” which seems like it would be detrimental to the story. But the world Seuss has created is so well designed that we seem to intuitively understand the logic going on in the Grinch’s head. The story appeals to those of us for whom Christmas is not always associated with warm & good feelings. It can be grating to hear people celebrating so loudly and in such mass when you don’t see the same good things.
I put The Grinch up there with Charlie Brown’s Christmas special in that it is trying to get at something more profound about this season. Unlike with Charlie Brown, the references to Judeo-Christianity are absent. We don’t see a single religiously-associated symbol among the Whos’ holiday paraphernalia. This is a purely Seuss-ian world, and the story is about more than just not wanting to celebrate Christmas. The Grinch is an outsider who doesn’t feel like he is a part of the communal spirit among the Whos.
Unlike Ron Howard’s film attempts to do, we don’t need the details as to why. People end up outside the social inner so often for a multitude of reasons. The important part is that the Grinch misunderstands where the spirit of community comes from, which is seen in how his removal of the decorations has no effect on their solidarity to come together and feel love. The Grinch assumes community is born out of shared consumption, but the Whos, while obviously enjoying the little bits and bobs of Christmas, know it as something more than a material celebration. The Grinch learns that once we see past jealousy for manufactured goods, we can find solidarity with people we perceive as pushing us out. The cartoon makes it clear the Whos never told the Grinch he wasn’t allowed, but he allowed some unknown trauma to distance himself. They never pressure him to join them but let the Grinch learn and choose to come to them.