MovieMonday: The Grinch — and Grinches Past

Here we have the latest iteration of a holiday tale that had its debut in a children’s picture book 61 years ago.  Everyone knows the story by now — a cranky green-furred animal tries and fails to quash the Christmas spirit in a friendly village called Whoville.

This is the first 3-D computer-animated Grinch story, and it comes from the Illumination group that produced the “Despicable Me” series, among other films, all of which were very popular.

The imagery is creative and lovingly detailed, and the characters — including the Grinch, in his way — are winsome.  The narrative remains faithful to the original story’s large and small elements.

Small children will enjoy the story, as will teenagers and adults who remember earlier Grinch encounters from their own childhoods.

The themes, secular then and now, are two:  It is good to be nice, and Christmas is about more than decorations and presents.

Perhaps what is most remarkable is the enduring popularity of a very simple story.


The Grinch Evolution

1957:   Book

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”, a 64-page picture book, was released in time for the holiday season.  Over subsequent years, it became a seasonal standard, selling many millions of copies. The cave-dwelling Grinch and his antics were the story, augmented with bit parts for his dog, Max, and a little girl, Cindy Lou, against the background of the always happy population of Whoville.


1964:  Cartoon

The estimable Chuck Jones (creator of Wile E. Coyote and other Looney Tunes stars) organized a hand-drawn Grinch television cartoon with the help of author Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel.) They added a couple songs — notably “You’re a Bad One, Mr. Grinch” — and enlisted Boris Karloff, the famed horror movie actor, to narrate.  The cartoon ran about 22 minutes, 25 minutes with credits, and was perfect for a 30-minute children’s show.


1994: The Musical

A Minneapolis children’s theater group produced a musical play that later became a holiday staple at a San Diego playhouse, then moved to Broadway for seasonal runs from 2006 to 2008 and fanned out in road companies around the country.  The stars were all costumed humans, and the story was stretched, presumably with humorous pranks and songs, into a 90-minute entertainment appropriate for family audiences.

2000:  The First Movie

Director Ron Howard released a more detailed film that starred Jim Carrey as Jim Carrey the Grinch.  The story was padded substantially, giving the Grinch an origin story and paying more attention to Max and Cindy Lou.  Other characters were added, including Cindy Lou’s postmaster father and her ga-ga-for-gifts mother, a pompous Whoville  mayor,  and, yes, a sort-of Grinch love interest.  Actors playing the citizens of Whoville were fitted out with unusual upturned noses and pouchy upper lips, and new songs were added to the cartoon’s music.  The whole business clocked in at just under two hours.

2018: The Second Movie

The new film is not quite as long as the 2000 one, but still is much longer than the original story.  It also is attuned to the current moment.  Cindy Lou has an overworked single mom. Whoville has a female mayor. The relationship between the Grinch and his dog is more fully developed and resembles that of  Wallace and Gromit from the popular claymation series of the 1990s.  Before outfitting Max with the book’s pseudo-reindeer horn, the Grinch recruits a real reindeer, a sweet plus-sized fellow named Fred, to lead his sleigh.  In addition to a Grinch-Whoville reconciliation, the film ends with a Christmas feast.  Old Grinch songs are sung, plus traditional carols and new hip-hop numbers.

Conclusion

The original Grinch story was an abbreviated version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” aimed at the K-3 crowd.  The basic story elements never have changed.

The appeal never seems to subside.  The original storybook is on teachers’ and librarians’ lists of the best 100 children’s books of all time.  Regional theater troupes still perform the musical version in December.  Families still gather around the television to watch the 1964 cartoon and the 2000 movie on television and streaming channels, respectively.  The current film either will get a second theatrical release in 2019 or start streaming on premium channels as well.

For a country that increasingly seems to be populated by non-Christians and adamant atheists, that’s pretty remarkable.

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