Not really progenitors to any new film specifically so much as to the spirit of every Christmas movie. Again, I recognize I’m a couple weeks late here. Enjoy nonetheless.
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Chuck Jones’ indelible holiday classic celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year, and here’s to fifty years more. While its minimalist and semi-abstract background animation once enshrined it in the modernist animation new-school, now it remains one of the beacons of halcyon Christmas days when silent confidence was more spirited than garish over-abundance of visual pandemonium designed with an aneurysm in mind. Simple and carefree though it may be, Jones’ creation seethes with punchy, snakelike charisma that many a longer, more substantial production might sacrifice for unearned grandness.
Although a trim affair at a svelte twenty something minutes, Jones’ inimitable style makes the most out of expanding but not destabilizing Dr. Seuss’ story of the titular hermetic ball of green distaste who mounts a midnight rampage to steal all of the presents in nearby Who-ville. That is, only until a split-second change of heart to grant him safe passage as a vanguard of Christmas joy and togetherness. While the Grinch’s diametrically opposed decisions may suggest an easily-swayed personality underneath all those tuffs of green fur (more jaundiced than verdant), the special itself is not only pure of heart but primed with focus.
Visually, it’s not the most revelatory thing in the world, but the scrappy for-TV budget liberates Jones (a much better fit for this rambunctious sort than, say, the die-hard realists at Disney). Rather than aiming for detail, he harnesses the grammar of near-abstraction known to lower budget TV animation in the ‘60s – more suited for suggesting objects through geometric shapes rather than filling them in with bristling detail – to animate this world with a sense of cheeky, otherworldly glee rather than trying and failing to represent reality.
The visual hell Jones raises is hardly as blissfully disobedient to the Disney rules of mostly-representational reality as the angry young things who dissented and defected from Disney to erect the upstart UPA. That home for the fledgling cabal of outsider US animators was more intrigued with the modernist possibilities of the interplay of space, shape, motion, and color in animation than in mooring the medium to reality. Jones was, after all, an older soul, so his style is more reigned-in and comforting than truly hostile to our assumptions about how to visualize space around us. But his gleefully warped sense of visual anarchy is obviously a kindred spirit of Dr. Seuss’ writing with its looseness of reason and palpable exultancy at bending and breaking the English language for his own cacophony of multisyllabic delights. Bluntly, I cannot think of a more smitten fit for Dr. Seuss’ style, warm but pugnacious, than Jones’ quasi-experimental animation, blotches and figures that feel just one drunken night away from slurring into a modernist painting that deconstructs the visual language of representational shape. It’s a sense of comfort verging on near-danger, the palpably exciting threat of genuine craziness more than the real thing.
And, while the animation is infused with the wobbly pop-art glee of the ‘60s, the sonic realm is really this special’s toybox. Jones may be enamored with Seuss’ words, but the wordplay’s real accomplice is the deliciously lustful, malevolent Boris Karloff as the voice of the Grinch. Karloff was a B-figure by this time but still a fixture on television (the forgotten but wonderful Thriller) and delirious Euro-smut films (the divine, deranged Black Sabbath, an imperfect but spirited Mario Bava omnibus narrated with diabolical glee by Karloff as well). Both experiences cast him primarily as narrators or wraparound-segment glue binding episodes and film fragments together, and they obviously served him well for this television special. Casting him was a wonderful, awful idea, purring the titular green meanie’s insinuations out with a sinister, even vaguely-aroused merry menace.
Although Karloff is likewise enamored with the chance the special provides him to unscrew the English language from its moorings of meaning to focus, instead, on the possibilities of sound for its own sake, he isn’t alone in the jagged revelry of wordplay. Although the special’s signature song, the swampy, monolithic “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”, is often attributed to Karloff, it is actually sung by Thurl Ravenscroft (whose nephew, brandishing the same booming bass pat-on-the-back of a voice, taught me AP Economics in high school; alas, opportunity costs were hardly “Great”, to quote uncle Thurl’s most famous character). And the song is just the bee’s knees. Ravenscroft’s delectable bass croon sounds like it could envelop the world with a hug and choke it at the same time, a dialectic that serves the spiky-warmth of the special and the bifurcated nature of the main character so well. While the nearby Whos are preaching collective exultancy en masse nearby, Ravenscroft mows them down preaching the spirit of caution and being on the lookout for evil where it rests. The oily cadence of the song is backed by a slinky jazz number that is just begging to do wrong to you when you aren’t looking.
Too overworked and Adderall-addicted for its own good, Arthur Christmas nonetheless overcomes its over-active imagination and Pixar-esque commitment to concluding everything with a hyper-antic chase on the back of its rambunctious spirit and plucky overall demeanor.
Thankfully, this spirited, antic Christmas film must not bear the weight of being the second crack in the dam of Aardman Animation holding the waters of Dreamworksian CGI at bay, even at the expense of their carefully curated, artisanal claymation style. After 2006’s negligible computer-animated Flushed Away had the company’s faithful on edge, Arthur Christmas not only proved to be their (thus far) last such CG offering and, as if that wasn’t enough, wholly bettered the former in nearly every way.
With the current Santa’s (Jim Broadbent) 70-year tenure now over, the reins of Christmas present are to be handed over to his son Steven (Hugh Laurie), who has modernized Christmas into a sleek exercise in gigantism, a corporate monstrosity that has maximized present-acquisition rates beyond any of Santa’s wildest dreams. The loose fibers of Christmas dreamland once weaved piecemeal in childhood imaginations are now streamlined and mechanized into a hyper-modern Information Age operation. Until, that is, one present is accidentally left un-sent, a gaff the number-crunching Steven is willing to let slide against underachieving younger brother Arthur’s (James McAvoy) wishes. Along with Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), whose relationship to the aforementioned characters I presume you can deduce, Arthur sets out on an expedition to correct the mistake with centuries-old technology, dredging up Christmas the way the classic Santas once did it.
And, indeed, Arthur Christmas comes mostly from the hearth, a play of exultancy and amusement that feels all the more evocative for how desperately it seems to just be maniacally scraping by via the skin of its teeth. Sarah Smith and Peter Baynham’s screenplay is peppered with undulating whimsy and snark, sugar and bitters, and the animation is doctored perfectly for squashing and stretching. The style rambunctiously marries rubber-band animation with a clay soul (although unlike all other Aardman films, the nominal medium is CG) to an elastic plot of endearing mania and syrupy holiday cheer. Slim through it may be, it’s filled with enough peppy humor to spike even the most cantankerous soul.