Walk into any kindergarten classroom in the English-speaking world, and you will find a Dr. Seuss book. I will bet money on it. Theodore “Seuss” Geisel has cast his spell over the world’s children for decades now; his whimsical wordplay, curious characters and surreal settings win over hearts young and old. “But David,” you wonder, “What on earth does this guy have to do with animation?” Well, this year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the classic Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the perennial holiday favorite that gave us the oft-applied “You’re a Mean One.” The 1966 Grinch is certainly the best-remembered adaptation of Seuss’ work, but it’s not the only one. Let’s delve into the long history of Seuss’ relationship with animation, and see where it’s going in the future.
Long before the good doctor gave us the Cat in the Hat and Sam-I-Am, he took a break from his budding children’s literature to exercise his skills in the Second World War. Geisel’s political cartoons for the New York newspaper PM lampooned appeasement and isolation while drumming up the war effort. His skills did not go unnoticed by the government, and he was hired by the Army to create training videos for new recruits. Geisel wrote a series of shorts starring the goofy Private Snafu, who demonstrated exactly what not to do in combat. Attached to the project were Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, then budding talents who would go on create classic characters such as Tom and Jerry; Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner; and the Pink Panther, among many others. The entire Private Snafu series has been declassified and can be seen in Internet archives; they’re worth a watch for historical value, and a couple of fun laughs. On top of that, though, this collaboration brought these remarkable talents together and set the stage for magic to happen.
On Christmas Day 1956, Geisel published How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and found critical success, with adults enjoying the humor and moral as much as the kids they read it to. One decade later, he teamed up again with Chuck Jones for a television adaptation of his work. Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, it received only modest praise, probably because it came out at the tail end of some hard-hitting specials: A Charlie Brown Christmas had aired a year before, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer the year before that. Nowadays it enjoys much stronger reviews, and it sits at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Besides critical approval, Grinch has enjoyed successful television ratings, multiple videodisc releases, a live-action adaptation and even a stage musical. Most people could tell you as much. What few realize though is that Grinch started a trend of Seuss-styled animations, and even boasts a few sequels! Which brings us to the next chapter in Geisel’s relationship with the artform.
While not as widespread as Grinch, many people have seen Horton Hears a Who! from 1970, or The Lorax from 1972. The adaptations didn’t stop there though. DePatie-Freleng Enterprises took over Seuss shorts after Horton and began churning them out. The Cat in the Hat made an appearance in his own television short in 1971. The Sneetches got the small-screen treatment in 1973. The Butter Battle Book got an adaptation in 1989. That still wasn’t all though! As I mentioned before, the Grinch got two more specials of his own: the 1977 Halloween is Grinch Night, and the 1982 battle of titans The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat (Batman v. Superman had no chance to match that). Needless to say, they haven’t gotten nearly the press that Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! enjoys. That’s not to say any of these are bad. Watching the Cat in the Hat demand his stolen “moss-covered three-handled family gredunza” is an experience that only Geisel could write. But they came so quickly and often; I haven’t even provided a comprehensive list here! These shorts just don’t carry the same weight, and they ultimately didn’t keep DePatie-Freleng Enterprises from being bought out by Marvel in 1981, leaving the Grinch vs Cat special to be finished by their new owners.
The next major chapter is a dark one. In 2000, Seuss got adapted into a full-length feature film for the first time, and in live-action too! And of course, the big “winner” was the Grinch. Jim Carrey played the titular role, and… well, it wasn’t nearly as good. Carrey delivered a fun performance but on the whole the film fell flat. In 2003, we got the live-action version of The Cat in the Hat. If enough people ask I’ll go into more detail later on, but to put it succinctly, the 2003 Cat in the Hat is one of the worst movies I have ever had the displeasure of witnessing. I’m not alone in that opinion either: the film won various “awards” such as Worst Screenplay, Worst Picture, Most Annoying Non-Human Character, and my personal favorite, the Razzie for Worst Excuse for an Actual Movie. Most importantly though, it placed Seuss’ work firmly out of the reach of any further live-action features. Audrey Geisel, Dr. Seuss’ widow and the current holder of all his licensing affairs, stated after the movie’s release that she would no longer approve any live-action features based on Seuss’ work. If any studios want to adapt Ted Geisel’s books, they have to use animation.
And that’s exactly what we’ve seen the past decade. Blue Sky Studios adapted Horton Hears a Who! in 2008 with Audrey Geisel’s blessing, and found moderate success. They gave us a movie that felt pretty close to the source material. At least, closer than Mike Myers blurting out “Dirty hoe!” Horton turned out to be an overall decent movie. In terms of feature-length productions, I feel it’s come the closest to really hitting the mark. It never resorted to crude humor, it didn’t deviate too radically from the plotline, and it kept the overall charm that we associate with the Seuss trademark. Sure, the emo teenager and anime references were unnecessary, but again when you’re contrasting yourself to Mike Myers’ constant lewdness, you have a lot of wriggle room. Outside of feature films, PBS has run an educational series titled The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! since 2010, which has won several parents’ choice awards. Newcomers Illumination Entertainment have also plucked up a number of Seuss properties for themselves. They gave us The Lorax in 2012, again with moderate critical success. However, they made a lot of money from it, nearly triple the budget in just the United States alone! As a result, they have a new Cat in the Hat film in the works, as well as… you guessed it, another Grinch.
For nearly fifty-three years the Grinch has put up with Christmas, and Ted Geisel has had a hand in a field I care so much about. The fact that his work has been adapted so much, some stories multiple times, says a lot about the depth of Seuss’ creative genius. I didn’t even realize the full extent before I started writing this article, and to discover the influence he had… well, I don’t know if I’m the only one truly excited about it, but I certainly hope not. So when you sit down to watch Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! this holiday season, keep in mind that you’re witnessing a partnership birthed in the fires of war, and continued into the present day. Antibiotics may fade with time, but Dr. Seuss’ medicine never grows old.
David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. Animation Analysis will appear intermittently throughout winter break.