'Rudolph,' 'Charlie Brown,' and 'The Grinch: Will the great American trilogy of Christmas specials work on a newcomer? (PART 2)

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Hillary: Ah, the Grinch — if I didn’t think the term was played out, I’d be tempted to call him my spirit animal. If Rudolph is a tinkly toy piano and Charlie Brown is a sad trombone, the Grinch is a sly, wicked guitar riff. Even the cartoon’s conclusion manages to avoid all-out sentimentality — though I’d love to see a 3eanuts version that ends with a triumphant Grinch standing alone on Mt. Crumpit, leaning on a sleigh overstuffed with floofloovers and gardookas.

The only reason I singled out Charlie Brown as my favorite special is because I already knew the Grinch’s story — and delightful as it was, the animated version didn’t hold too many surprises for me. I have to give Chuck Jones credit, though, for proving conclusively that it is possible to adapt a Dr. Seuss book into another medium successfully. (The only thing worse than Seussical is the new version of The Lorax that came out this spring. Watching it on a plane made me feel Grinchier than anything ever has.) Between those whimsical Who instruments, the green guy’s slowly growing evil smirk, and poor, put-upon Max’s apologetic body language, The Grinch also boasted the best visuals of these three specials.

And sorry again, Vince Guaraldi — even though I grew to appreciate your Charlie Brown score, The Grinch’s music left the most lasting impression on me. Every time I thought “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” had presented its most ridiculous metaphor, there was another verse about the creature having garlic in his soul, or a dead tomato heart splotched with moldy purple spots, or — in what could be the greatest insult ever — being a three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich… with arsenic saaauuuce! Laughing hysterically at that song really made me feel like a kid again, perhaps more than anything else I experienced during this little exercise.

How about you, Darren? You said before we watched the specials that The Grinch was your favorite one. Is it still — and what’s your favorite line from “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”?

Darren: I love both of the other specials, Yukon Cornelius notwithstanding. But How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is in another level entirely for me: It is a thing that is perfect. The original book is wispy even by Seuss standards. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good — if you think Dr. Seuss ever made a bad book, I haven’t heard of it, and I think you’re lying. But as you point out, the cartoon marks a collaboration between two legitimate gods of our collective national childhood: Dr. Seuss, who actively participated in the special by writing those sparkling lyrics (of which the best is clearly “You have all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile“), and Chuck Jones, the animation genius behind some of the best Looney Tunes cartoons.

Throw in Boris “Frankenstein” Karloff in a dual role — a wry-yet-soothing narrator and the mealy-mouthed Grinch — and Thurl “They’re grrrreat!” Ravenscroft singing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and you have a crew of talented people all overdelivering like crazy on a relatively simple story about a demented Caveman Scrooge with a tiny heart.

I love that the lyrics to the Whoville Christmas Anthem are — from memory — “Aboo Oray Aboo Oray, Welcome Christmas Welcome!” It’s like a jab at how annoyingly vanilla Christmas songs are, and it’s also a ridiculously catchy Christmas song. I love how the Grinch is ugly, scary-looking, and yet totally endearing and even likable — if Charlie Brown is a proto-Louis C.K., then the Grinch is certainly a more put-upon version of Larry David. And I love how your feelings get completely inverted in the final minutes. The vast majority of The Grinch really is pure schadenfreude. It’s not scary when the Grinch sneaks into houses and steals Christmas; truth be told, it’s kind of fun. And then he hears the singing, and he reaches down to save the sleigh, and he has on his face the most freakishly beautiful smile in the history of human joy, and his heart grows three sizes… I lose it every time.

It’s probably because I love this special so much that I never wound up seeing the Jim Carrey version, which came out when I was still young enough to feasibly be optimistic about it. I’m intrigued: From your memory, what exactly did they add into the movie to make it feature-length? Does the Grinch have a love interest? Does Max get an origin story? Did Ron Howard hire Industrial Light & Magic to create an incredibly realistic Roast Beast?

Hillary: From what I recall, the Jim Carrey version does indeed pad out the story by giving the Grinch both a love interest — “Martha May Whovier” (ugh), played by the awesome Christine Baranski — and a Hollywood-approved origin story. In the book and the animated special, no one quite knows why the Grinch hates Christmas; in the horrible live-action movie, it’s because he was teased when he was a little green kid, or something. That’s just one of the reasons the newer Grinch was such a creative failure: It took the Seuss story’s subtext (the Grinch is so Grinchy because he’s a lonely outsider) and made it text. Carrey’s spastic performance — YouTube clips remind me that his Grinch voice sounds like a drunker version of Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery — and a garish production design that utilized two million feet of Styrofoam certainly didn’t help.

The main culprit for The Grinch’s deservedly bad reputation, though, has to be its length. No picture book this side of Jumanji can sustain a full-length feature film; even the generally well-received Horton Hears a Who! was criticized for trying to spin an 86-minute movie out of a book that takes 10 minutes to read, tops. (I shudder to think what Peter Jackson would do if he got his hands on The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.)

It’s funny that you mention the nonsensical lyrics of Whoville’s traditional Christmas hymn. IMDB claims that Dr. Seuss intended the words to sound like made-up Latin — although the joke was lost on several viewers, who sent letters to MGM asking for an English translation of the song. Knowing that even this seemingly sincere moment was actually a loving send-up of Christmas carols makes me like The Grinch even more — the whole thing has such a cool, impish energy, even the parts that don’t actively involve the Grinch himself.

And just one more thing: If The Grinch exists in the same universe as Horton Hears a Who!, then everything that happens in the special is actually taking place on top of a tiny speck of dust. Doesn’t that blow your mind, man?

Darren: Lemme bust your mind wide open, Hillary: Chuck Jones also did an animated version of Horton Hears a Who!, and you can actually spot a figure in Horton‘s Whoville who looks identical to The Grinch. (You can see him at 3:38 in this video.) Continuity! Shared-universe! Fan theories!

So Hillary, you’ve now experienced an overdose of Christmas cheer. Do you have any final thoughts on this yuletide adventure? Have you become less cynical? Do you believe in Santa Claus, or anyhow, the spirit of Santa Claus?

Hillary: Well, Darren, my heart hasn’t exactly grown three sizes — but I will admit that this viewing experience wasn’t nearly as painful as I feared it might be. In fact — dare I say it? — I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I finally understand why Rudolph’s good-natured silliness, Charlie Brown’s beautiful misery, and The Grinch’s shrewd humor have stood the test of time. What’s more, I can say with confidence that these specials are truly entertaining for adults and kids alike — even those who consider Dec. 25 nothing more than the day before Dec. 26.

MERRY CHRISTMAS, EW.COM READERS!

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