The Animation Art of Chuck Jones: How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

How The Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

Grinch Part 1 Grinch Part 2 Grinch Part 3 Grinch Part 4

Grinch Part 5 Grinch Part 6 Grinch Part 7 Grinch Part 8

Grinch Part 9 Grinch Part 10 Grinch Part 11 Grinch Part 12

Grinch Part 13 Grinch Part 14 Grinch Part 15 Grinch Part 16

Grinch Part 17 Grinch Part 18 Grinch Part 19

Observations:

  • Of the “Big Three” 1960s animated Christmas specials (A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and How The Grinch Stole Christmas!) the Grinch is by faaaaar my favourite, to the point where it’s one of my favourite things about Christmas (the less said about how I feel about Charlie Brown, the better). I grew up with a VHS tape, vintage 1988, that was several hours of Christmas specials recorded off of TV. At some point my mother re-recorded the Grinch special on the tape because another TV station was broadcasting it with a higher quality print, but the last 10 minutes or so of the special was repeated (presumably because of different commercial break timing). Such is the power of the Grinch that on that VHS tape, I could watch the ending twice in a row, and not mind at all.
  • This will be my first examination of a non-Sailor Moon animation director. Chuck Jones was the first animator that I really took notice of. I grew up surrounded by Looney Tunes, and because those shorts listed the writers and directors prominently, it was easy to determine that the cartoons I liked the most were by “Charles M. Jones.” I can’t remember at what age I discovered that Jones also directed How The Grinch Stole Christmas! but I would have figured it out anyway, since you can see his later animation style all over it.
  • Credit for the general look of the special goes to two other individuals. Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Theodor Geisel), of course, wrote the original picture book. The fun thing about re-watching this is seeing how Dr. Seuss and Chuck Jones’ drawing styles blended. The two were old friends, having worked together on the WWII propaganda short series Private Snafu. The other artist who should get credit is Maurice Noble. He was a background artist who usually worked with Jones, and it’s his flat, geometric style that characterized the thematic looks (or mise en scene, if you wanna get all film school fancy talk) of shorts like Duck Dodgers in the 24th and 1/2 Century and What’s Opera Doc? The backgrounds of The Grinch are gorgeous, so lots of credit to Noble for that.
  • This short (I’m not gonna keep typing out the whole title) is a really good source for showing how Chuck Jones’ style evolved post-1960ish. His character designs tend to have long eyelashes, heavy lids, chubby cheeks, promiment rounded chins, freckles occasionally, and very visible pencil sketch lines. The A Chipmunk Christmas special was not animated by him, but the character designs were his work, and you can really tell. Another Jonesian trait that we see a LOT in this short is the fourth wall-breaking “Aside Glance.” The Whos don’t ever interact visually with the audience, but the Grinch, Max and the Mouse do. The Grinch is aware that an audience is watching his crime spree, which makes his maliciously gleeful expression all the funnier.
  • The Dr. Seuss book was originally only printed in black, white and red. So the Grinch’s greenness is an invention of this special. It works pretty well artistically, since a great deal of the shots in the special have a red/blue/green chromatic arrangement. This short also has a distinctly 1960s look, with bright (almost neon) colours, the previously mentioned “flatness” and a stylized colouring style I have a little trouble describing. It’s like deliberately colouring out of the lines to give a loose, casual look. You can kind of see an example of it with the bricks in the chimney/houses. I actually have to wonder if the short was originally THIS bright, because damn, these colours. I suspect heavy-handed remastering was afoot.
  • A lot of people will emphasize how heartwarming this short is, and it definitely is – but really not until the end. A good 90% of the short is just pure comedy. The stuff that the Whos play with and decorate with is just completely bizarre (in that Seussian way), and the Grinch’s expressions are just so varied and funny. Another celebrated thing is the short’s music, most notably “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” sung by Thurl Ravenscroft. The song wouldn’t have been nearly as funny without Ravenscroft’s deep voice. (I remember Jim Carrey sings it in the film at one point I think, but I loathe the film, so I will not discuss it at all.)
  • The short starts with some very detailed, very large snowflakes. This is actually a subtle stroke of brilliance. The Whos first appeared in “Horton Hears A Who,” which has been adapted into animation twice (most recently by Blue Sky Studios). The canon established in that book/short/film states that the Whos are basically microscopic, and their entire world is the size of a dust speck. Thus, the snowflakes that fall on Whoville are going to be rather large!
  • Jones makes some interesting use of framing and angles when depicting the Grinch. At the “Staring down from his cave” line, we see an exaggerated angle known as a “Dutch Angle.” It’s often used to create an effect of evil, intimidating characters. Hitchcock liked using that angle a lot. There’s a similar effect when the sleigh falls off the cliff, rushing towards the viewer. It’s again at a very exaggerated angle, and the Grinch’s expression is downright scary there.
  • All of the Whos are distinct people – there isn’t a single recycled or reused character design for them. Cindy Lou Who is the most distinct of all, of course. She pretty much just looks like a human toddler, just with little weird antenna things.
  • I’ve always wondered where Max came from. He’s a regular dog in a world populated by the humanoid Whos and…whatever the Grinch is. Note that he looks quite a bit like Wile E. Coyote/Ralph, particularly the nose. Max is also rather patient and compliant with the Grinch. I guess he’s pretty much the only person in the Grinch’s world who loves him.
  • The background for the Whos while they’re playing with their Christmas toys is this really lurid acid green. It’s so bright it’s almost distracting, and I think that the emotional effect caused by this bright sickly green is used to help establish a bit of sympathy for the Grinch. Let’s be fair to him; they ARE extremely noisy.
  • There is some recycled animation in the feast scene, which is pretty obvious. The Whos will just keep biting out of things that don’t change shape/size and never disappear.
  • I always thought that the sequence showing the gradually shrinking Who chefs serving a single strawberry to Cindy Lou Who was excessive and unnecessary. It’s cute and funny, but why waste all that energy and manpower for a strawberry?!
  • It’s never really stated out loud (we’re supposed to assume the Grinch hates it because it’s yet another way the Whos make noise), but the real reason why the Grinch hates the group singalong is because the song talks about togetherness and that Christmas is important because they have each other. Other than Max, the Grinch has no one.
  • I love the animation of the “Wonderful awful idea” bit. It’s so fluid and his evil “eureka” expression is so hilarious. Even his hair tufts roll out…for some reason.
  • So, uh, how was the Grinch able to make a decent Santa costume out of a badly cut, and single-sided “shirt shape” from his curtains? Also, subtle thing here: His curtains and blankets have huge garish patches on them. Is the Grinch very poor, or is he just cheap?
  • The sled travelling sequence is very Looney Tunes. The background is in a loop (similar to the short’s contemporary, The Flintstones) and it’s basically just a “hilarity ensues” trip, it doesn’t really push the narrative forward. Notice also the colour balance here. There’s the red/green/blue/white chromatic arrangement – when all three colours of light are put together, it makes white. It’s also representative of two common pairings of Christmas colours.
  • As the Grinch climbs down the chimney, his hat is coloured green for a few quick frames. It’s quite noticeable and a pretty sloppy error – I’m surprised they let it go to print like that.
  • Apparently some recent broadcasts of the short cut out the scene where the Grinch does a creepy smile while watching the children sleep. It makes them think of a child molester or something? I dunno. That just seems like such a stretch to me.
  • I’ve always wondered what the animal was that became the “Roast Beast,” but I also wonder what “Who Hash” contains. The Grinch took the Whos’ drugs, man!
  • I am a little dubious about the scale of Cindy Lou Who to the Christmas ornament she’s holding. It’s bigger than her head! The tree is absolutely enormous compared to her size, too. Do Whos just start out extremely tiny and then gradually grow to a reasonable height? Also, she’s voiced by June Foray, another common collaborator with Chuck Jones. She’s showed up pretty much everywhere, but her notable voiceover roles include Granny in Looney Tunes, Natasha and Rocky in Rocky & Bullwinkle, and Magica de Spell in DuckTales (and she was basically using her Natasha voice there). She’s still doing voiceover work well into her 90s. Awesome lady.
  • I really enjoy the use of cartoon logic & physics in the sequences of the Grinch stealing stuff. What’s the point of stealing ice? How’s he going to return that, exactly? He’s also pretty much ruined that film he stole out of the camera. Closing the Whoville tree like an umbrella is hilarious too. And I have no idea how Max is able to pull that likely enormously heavy sled, especially up 10,000 feet. Actually, wait. How big is 10,000 feet in a microscopic world? Ow, my brain.
  • Speaking of cartoon physics, I’m kind of shocked Jones refrained from doing the “gravity doesn’t apply until the person notices it” bit. I guess it would have killed the suspense of the sleigh being pushed off Mt. Crumpet.
  • Notice the very dramatic use of colour in the scene where the Whos gather together to sing after all. Previously, much of the short had a cool colour balance (generally greens and blues). Now we’ve got bright pinks, reds, oranges and yellows to represent the breaking dawn. I’d always liked the change of colours behind the Grinch as he realized what Christmas was all about, but I recently realized that it’s a visual pun. The colours are the dawn, and it’s dawning on him that Christmas is more than he thought it was.
  • This is a pretty much exclusively secular short (as most of them are, though, unusually, Santa doesn’t appear at all in this one) but the sparkling, rising light in the centre of the Whoville circle is a very obvious symbolic representation of Jesus. But since light can mean so many other things metaphorically, it is not exclusively a religious symbol here.
  • There’s another brief colouring error when the Grinch reacts in shock to the sleigh slipping off the cliff. His eyes are supposed to be blue at this point, but they’re red in that quick sequence.
  • Perhaps I’m a cynic, but I’ve also wondered if the Grinch cared more about saving the Christmas stuff than he did about saving Max. He did start pulling on Max first, but that doesn’t really conclude anything.
  • We’re well into the “heartwarming” part of the special, but I still love that one last gag of the Whos opening like a gate.
  • The Whos are an unusual bunch. Not only were they not upset that their houses were burgled (I know, I know, the dawn of Christmas Day and their being together was more important), they seem to have forgiven the Grinch instantly. Maybe they were just glad he’d decided to join them at last, and that he finally understood togetherness and being grateful for people, not for things.
  • One last point: Shockingly, there has never been an official soundtrack release, despite how famous the music is. There is a CD recording of the story featuring Boris Karloff, but the music included is a re-recording using different vocalists (Ravenscroft excepted), so it doesn’t sound the same. Make with the soundtrack, whoever owns the rights! Include the score too, dangit. (Update November 2015: There is an official soundtrack now, original audio and everything. It’s on Spotify!)
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