The Grinch who stole Hollywood

So I’ve watched the original “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” cartoon twice this week, and if they show it again I’ll most likely be watching it again. But I paid a bit more attention to it this time around, and I came to one definite conclusion and one somewhat saddening question.

The conclusion was: man, whoever put that stupid movie remake together a few years ago had some pair of balls on ’em. The hubris required on the part of these Hollywood types to think that they could come within spitting distance of the absolute greatness of the original is staggering to consider. And to top it off, they evidently thought to improve on Chuck Jones’s and Ted Geisel’s immortal work by throwing in a bunch of namby-pamby touchy-feely crapola detailing the poor downtrodden Grinch’s cruel childhood and his victimization at the hands of those awful small-minded bigots, the Whos. Jonah Goldberg had this to say about the movie two years ago:

The original tale featured a Scrooge-like creature with “termites in his smile” and “garlic in his soul.” “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch,” went the song, and that was all we needed to know about him. The neighboring town of Whoville consisted almost entirely of Tiny Tim-like folk who embodied the Christmas spirit. The Grinch hates Christmas, tries to steal Christmas, realizes the error of his ways, loves Christmas: not the most original character arc, but it rhymed well and had its desired effect on two generations of viewers.

Now comes this movie. In the new telling, the Grinch was horribly wronged by mean-spirited Whovilleans. He was a misunderstood child, raised in an alternative-lifestyle family, and was cast out from the snowy Eden by petty, jealous meanies. It turns out the monochromatic Whovilleans couldn’t stomach a child who was green, hairy, and — well — different. The Grinch grew to hate Christmas largely, it seems, because the Whovilleans treated it as an opportunity to show off, with crass light displays, politically motivated festivals, and rank materialism. In this account, the most despicable character is not the Grinch but the vain mayor of Whoville. And while the Grinch does learn quite a bit about Christmas, it turns out the misguided Whovilleans also have much to learn.

But did we really need to know that the Grinch was the victim of a cruel childhood? Did we need a debunking of the “myths” of Whovillean virtue? Did the black-and-white story have to be smudged into shades of gray? Of course: That’s what Hollywood does. Indeed, what better vehicle could there be for the exaltation of the individual, the fetishization of the victim, the deconstruction of the “mainstream,” than a beloved family entertainment? Grinch director Ron Howard is hardly a campus radical, but even he isn’t immune to the culture industry’s endemic shortcomings — in this case, Hollywood’s ingrained inability to understand villainy.

The Hollywood dweebs should have left well enough alone, and I for one wish they had. But time will tell, as it always does, and kids (and their parents, and me) will be watching the original long after the politically-correct pretender is forgotten.

I’ve always loved all of Chuck Jones’s work, and the Grinch is one of his masterpieces, I think. Having Boris Karloff narrate the thing was one of those perfect, inspired choices that seem obvious in retrospect simply because of the wonderful job he did, but the real beauty of it is how completely out of left field choosing Karloff must have seemed at the time. I mean, feature this dialogue: It’s 1966, and you’re in charge of planning a new Christmas-special family cartoon. One of your flunkies comes in for a meeting on who to pick as narrator, a crucial decision that just might make or break the project. Burl Ives, maybe? Nope; he’s great and all, but Rankin-Bass already used him for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in ’64 (another fine cartoon, another abominable movie remake). Think again. John Huston? Nah; great voice and all, but he’s a bit too weighty and serious; this is a cartoon, blast it! Plus, he might show up soused for the taping and decide to recite some of those off-color limericks he’s so fond of instead of the written dialogue – you know how Huston is. Ummm….let me see…Boris Karloff?

Boris Karloff? Are you mad, man?

But it worked. Damn, did it ever. Karloff is just perfect throughout, and trying to imagine it being done by anyone else now is a bit like imagining Snoop Doggy Doo singing “Let It Be.” Not a pleasing prospect in either case, I daresay.

The backgrounds are endlessly fascinating, the songs are funny and memorable; the story might be a little sappy in places, but so what. Didja ever notice how, at the moment of his epiphany, the Grinch’s eyes change from red to blue (Chuck Jones’s own eye color; lots of folks claim that the Grinch was actually a self-portrait by Jones) and stay that way till the end? A Variety review at the time claimed that the Grinch was the most expensive animation ever made for CBS, and I think nobody would argue now that it wasn’t money well-spent. Geisel and Jones were great friends, and even though they had plenty of disagreements during the making of the Grinch, they remained so throughout their lives. The Grinch stands at the top of the heap when it comes to this sort of thing, and rightly so. Which brings me to the question I mentioned above.

Will there ever be another animated Christmas special made that comes close? Can we ever expect the people running the entertainment biz these days to put aside their dire political messages, their speechifying, their proselytizing, their smarmy preaching to their heartland inferiors, and just make a damned good piece of simple entertainment like the Grinch ever again?

I doubt it. The way things stand now, I’d fully expect their next attempt at re-imagining the Grinch to feature a very thinly-disguised cartoon version of George W Bush in the lead role.

Which is one damn good reason why they suck, you know.

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