‘The Grinch’ Understands the Meaning of Christmas, But Not the Meaning of the Grinch
It’s been eight years since Dan Harmon pinpointed the reason for the Yuletide season on the late, beloved Community’s holiday special “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.” After having completed his quest to retrieve a DVD of Lost — it’s a symbol for lack of payoff, don’t worry about it — pop-culture encyclopedia Abed concludes, “The meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning.” He’s saying that the birth of Christ now primarily derives its power from the significance we project onto it, whether that’s in terms of religion or family or just fuzzy feelings.
The new adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ famed picture book How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, a computer-animated treatment taking the baton from Chuck Jones’ canonical 1966 TV special and the uncanny valley-scaling live-action film from 2000, has a clear-cut idea of the meaning it plans on assigning Christmas. Our humble narrator Pharrell Williams (yes, the producer from the Neptunes) spells it all out during the final act, in which the Grinch discovers that what he thought was a crass display of consumerism has a warmer, more nourishing foundation in love. Seeing the Whos of Whoville joined in song, undeterred by the previous night’s assorted ransackings, shows the Grinch that peace on Earth and good will toward men mean a lot more than food or decorations or the much-coveted presents under the tree.
He’s definitely on to something, though it’s hardly a revelation. The Grinch arrives at the same epiphany as countless wintertime entertainments past, but the trouble is that The Grinch does the exact same. In shifting partial focus to Cindy Lou Who and her altruistic mission to get Santa to give her overworked single mother a break from her nursing job, the film loses sight of its main character’s transformative arc — the substance that’s made this particular story so enduringly popular and ripe for reinterpretation. Juggling the subplots and non sequitur allusions and slapstick sight gags, directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney lost sight of the battle for the Grinch’s soul.
They hide the dead giveaway in the exposition. Dr. Seuss’ original Grinch needed no context, presented matter-of-factly to the reader as a cave-dwelling curmudgeon feeling sour about all the cheer due to a heart two sizes too small. Fast-forward to today, and the modern movie studio’s inexplicable fetish for origin narratives has replaced the medical diagnosis with a backstory casting the fuzzy green jerk in a different light. We catch a glimpse of the Grinch during a formative childhood experience, when he feels excluded from all the merriment because he doesn’t know anyone. He skids into the alienation and grows up to be his ineffably Grinchy self, and knowing the source of his discontentment cues up the film for an easy fix in the last 15 minutes.
That 11th-hour change of heart is the Grinch’s raison d’etre, and the latest adaptation twists it from a spiritual metamorphosis into a banal righting of a simple misunderstanding. The Grinch instantly whistles a different tune once he’s cordially invited to join in the Whoville rejoicing, and newly refreshed by the essence of Christmas, he returns all the goodies he’s stolen. He’s always been welcome. It turns out that the antipathy was all in his head — and not, crucially, his heart.
Get a sample of Grinch DNA under the microscope, and his lineage can be traced directly back to Ebenezer Scrooge, another misanthrope with an onomatopoetically grungy name whose hardened grumpiness could be melted by holiday magic. The story of the original Grinch hinged on the same Christian principles of penance and salvation that fueled Dickens’ immortal A Christmas Carol, offering the comforting notion that it’s never too late to start being a decent person. The Grinch’s slide down the hill to give back his purloined payload harkens back to Scrooge calling out his bedroom window for a local urchin boy to go buy the biggest turkey in the window, gestures of magnanimity demonstrating glorious, gleaming rebirth. Their stories live as an illustration that nobody’s beyond saving, no matter how grinchy.
For all its certainty about the meaning of Christmas, a phrase that even tastes hackneyed in your mouth when spoken aloud, The Grinch doesn’t quite understand the meaning of the Grinch. The potent, eternal alchemy of biblically-informed morality has been swapped out for something explicable, measurable, and easily spelled-out. Like Scrooge before him, the Grinch had assumed an almost mythical aura as an embodiment of forces greater than himself. The new film’s attempts to humanize its main character by assigning him a sob story and an accompanying motivation rob him of that very quality. The Grinch wants the Grinch to be George Bailey, the redeemed turned redeemer. In truth, he’s a lot closer to Christ.
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