Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately as the new animated film The Grinch hits theaters ahead of the holiday season: The 1966 TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is pretty much perfect. Written by Dr. Seuss — adapting his own 1957 children’s book — it’s filled with Seussian wordplay and whimsical visuals brought to life by animation legend Chuck Jones.
Boris Karloff does double duty as the genteel narrator and the menacing Grinch, and it features the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” co-written by Seuss and Albert Hague, which will be stuck in your head as soon as you’re done reading this sentence.
It’s also a story with a strong beginning (Grinch hates Christmas, has a too-small heart, abuses dog), middle (Grinch visits Whoville on Christmas Eve, inflicts a stealth reign of terror upon it, abuses dog) and definitive end (Grinch recognizes the true meaning of Christmas, his heart swells, he presumably stops abusing his dog). It’s lovely and uplifting and essentially gives the Grinch nowhere else to go. His story is over. Welcomed into the circle of Whoville, he’s a reformed Grinch with no Grinching left to be done.
Yet Grinch he did, revived by Seuss for a pair of TV sequels: 1977’s Halloween Is Grinch Night and the 1982 team-up adventure The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat. Both are strange, and each is strange in its own particular way.
With Halloween Is Grinch Night, Seuss traded in one holiday for another, setting the Grinch loose to terrorize Whoville as the Sour-Sweet Wind heralds the coming of another Grinch Night. (Why, you might ask? We’ll get into that shortly.) He also traded one collaborator from the golden age of Looney Tunes for another, teaming up with Jones’ old coworker Friz Freleng. Freleng wasn’t the only talent subbing in, either. Karloff had died in 1969, and he’s replaced here by Hans Conried, a busy character and voice actor probably best known as the voice of Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan. Seuss again wrote the lyrics to the special’s songs, but the music came from Joe Raposo, the songwriter behind numerous Sesame Street favorites and the Frank Sinatra–sung “There Used to Be a Ballpark” — the saddest song ever written about Brooklyn gentrification.
Just as How the Grinch Stole Christmas! built to a confrontation between the Grinch and sweet Cindy-Lou Who, here it’s again a single Who who stands between Whoville and total Grinch devastation: a bespectacled boy named Euchariah who wanders off after excusing himself to go use “the euphemism.” Instead he runs into the Grinch and his “Paraphernalia Wagon,” an oversized vehicle pulled, like his Christmas sleigh, by the Grinch’s put-upon dog Max. (Max even gets a song of lament, sung by Robert Altman regular Henry Gibson.) Eventually, Euchariah saves the day after a hellish, trippy visit to the Paraphernalia Wagon, where he’s tortured with visions of taunting monsters created by Seuss and an animation team clearly having fun letting their imaginations run wild, never mind how many impressionable little 1970s minds they warped in the process. But Euchariah’s suffering isn’t for naught: He distracts the Grinch long enough to keep him out of Whoville for another year.
Which raises that question again: What’s he doing troubling Whoville again in the first place?
Holly Anderson explored this in a 2014 piece for Grantland, but didn’t arrive at any satisfactory answers. The most obvious possibility is that this is a prequel, that it takes place before the Grinch’s Christmas epiphany, but that doesn’t explain what happens with Max, who leaves his tormenter for the comforts of Whoville at special’s end. A darker answer is that it’s a sequel, that the Grinch’s Yuletide change of heart didn’t take. But who wants to live in a world where that’s the case?
I’ll forward a third possible explanation: The Grinch stories exist in a multiverse, and Halloween Is Grinch Night unfolds in a reality removed from that of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
Consider the possibilities: In one such universe, it’s the Grinch who loves Christmas and Whoville who hates it. In another, it’s the Grinch who works for the Christmas-hating Max the Dog, voiced by Karloff’s professional rival Bela Lugosi, who died in 1956 in our universe, but let’s let that slide. In a third, Germany and Japan won World War II! (Actually, that’s The Man in the High Castle.)
A multiverse is really the only way to explain The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat, the charmless third entry in the Grinch Trilogy. It begins with the Grinch (now voiced by Bob Holt after Conried’s death) waking up in a good mood only to be reminded by his reflection that there’s Grinching to be done. So he hops in his car — poor Max getting a reprieve from dragging his master around for once — only to be flummoxed when he finds his way blocked by the car of a picnicking Cat in the Hat.
Then. It. Is. On.
Spurred by road rage, the Grinch breaks out such gadgets as the Vacusound Sweeper, which makes the Cat moo instead of speak, and the Darkhouse, which shoots a ray of darkness across the land, to make the Cat in the Hat’s life miserable. It’s only in the special’s final moments that the tables turn. The Cat in the Hat, after announcing he has the Grinch “psychologicalized,” reminds the Grinch that his (presumably dead) mother would be disappointed in him, and this prompts him to be nice again.
It’s a 25-minute slog of a special that proves sometimes famous creations are best kept to their own corners, the Seussian equivalent of King Kong vs. Godzilla or Freddy vs. Jason. His impish powers diminished, the Cat in the Hat mostly seems like a well-meaning wuss and the Grinch comes off less a psychologically complex meanie than, well, kind of a dick.
It’s little wonder, then, that both Halloween Is Grinch Night and The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat have been largely forgotten over the years; even when they aired in regular rotation on network television they felt like afterthoughts.
Now that’s exactly what they are: bonus features tacked on to the home-video version of the 1966 special that fans can check out if they want to — but probably won’t. Skip Halloween Is Grinch Night and you’ll miss some creative animation, but not really much else — beyond proof that even geniuses can end up going to the well one, or two, times too many.