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SYFY WIRE How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Which Grinch Do You Choose? Comparing All the Different Grinch Movies

They’re all different and each have their charms… but there’s never been a Grinch movie that stink, stank, stunk.

By Benjamin Bullard

He’s green, he’s mean, and he’s probably the most iconic Christmas villain to hop off the printed page for repeat screen turns since Charles Dickens had a trio of freaky ghosts drop in on ol’ Ebenezer Scrooge. Yep, we’re talking about the Grinch, the landmark Dr. Seuss creation who first earned his rotten reputation in Whoville as the scornful star of Theodor Geisel's classic rhyming, illustrated children’s book all the way back in 1957.

Despite his whole spirit-sapping sourpuss persona, the Grinch was pretty much an instant hit with contemporary readers — who already were primed to warm to Seuss’ latest creation thanks to the established success of future classics like Horton Hears a Who! (1954) and The Cat in the Hat (published earlier in the same year that the Grinch also made his book debut). It didn’t take long for animation royalty Chuck Jones (already a pal of Geisel’s) to cook up a plan to collaborate on adapting the Christmas story as a made-for-television feature — and the rest, as we know, is yuletide history.

RELATED: A Brief History of The Grinch, from Picture Books to Blockbusters

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (now streaming on Peacock) arrived in 1966 and immediately took its place among the exclusive batch of holiday screen stories that now seem like automatic, must-watch rites of passage to mark everyone’s annual list of Christmas rituals. But just like ol’ Ebenezer, the Grinch has since proven to be durably adaptable. Jim Carrey put his own demented spin on the character in 2000’s live action How the Grinch Stole Christmas (streaming now on Peacock), while Despicable Me moviemakers Illumination teamed with Universal Pictures to place Benedict Cumberbatch in the title voice role for 2018’s computer-animated The Grinch (also streaming on Peacock).

So… which Grinch movie should you choose?

Here’s a wonderful, awful idea: Just binge all the Grinch movies at once! Nope, we’re not even kidding. Unlike so many classic characters who’ve been adapted (for better and for worse), there’s never been a movie made of Dr. Seuss’ green meanie that just plain stink, stank, stunk — or even one that fell short of doing totally lovable justice to the spirit of the original characters and story.

Maybe that’s partly because there’ve only been three Grinch-themed feature films so far (and that’s even counting the sitcom-length 1966 television original), and they’ve all tapped some serious creative talent. Each time a studio has spun up a big new idea that revolves around robbing Whoville of its favorite holiday, the resulting production has been fantastic — all while adding new and unique elements that build on, rather than detract from, Seuss’ original vision.

Ron Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

Carrey’s live action version is by far the scariest screen Grinch, strutting and scheming with vindictive menace in 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas with just enough of a sliver of humanity (Who-manity?) to never quite come off as irredeemably evil. Though Carrey’s Grinch doesn’t threaten to lapse over into the kind of true terror territory that could send timid tiny viewers scurrying, his incredibly physical embodiment of the Grinch’s aggressively ugly spirit is so over the top that there are a few intimidating moments — if we didn’t know the basic story already — where we'd fully suspect that his grouchy green Who-hater really is capable of any awful thing.

Fortunately, of course, there’s Cindy Lou Who — the tale’s real hero in all the story’s permutations, played to absolute no-fear perfection in the face of Carey’s menace by a young Taylor Momsen (known later on for her turn on Gossip Girl, as well as her present-day role as the front for rock outfit Pretty Reckless). It’s vital that any Grinch movie get Cindy’s vibe just right, as she (and perhaps the Grinch’s loyal dog Max) give the story its whole heart and soul, yanking the Grinch out of his curmudgeonly Christmas-hating ways and showing him there’s more to the season than that pile of presents under each tree.

The Grinch (2018)

Cindy Lou is voiced by young actor Cameron Seely (The Greatest Showman) in Illumination’s 2018 animated feature The Grinch — and true to Momsen’s earlier portrayal, she delivers the plucky, indefatigable sort of stand-up optimism that’s required to force a lout like the Grinch out of his crabby comfort zone. And with Benedict Cumberbatch doing the honors as the Grinch himself (alongside charming voice acting turns from Keenan Thompson, Rashida Jones, and the late Angela Lansbury in one of her final roles), The Grinch is easily the most downright Christmas-y of any of the story’s film adaptations — and it’s probably the one we’d watch if we only had time to devote to one Grinch-y movie this year.

With elaborate snowy sets and an entire population of cheerfully innocent Whos, Carrey’s earlier live-action film came with plenty of holiday cheer — though it puts a distinctive and uncannily specific spin on Seuss’ anthropomorphic characters (if we’re being totally honest, the quirky Who faces in Carrey’s Whoville look like they might’ve provided the character inspiration for the freaky horror Splicers in the original 2007 BioShock video game.) Illumination’s Whoville, by contrast, is a more universally accessible wonderland, a little idyllic Christmas enclave where all the magic of the holiday comes to life in a story filled with crossover carols and celebrations that actually tip their hat to the real-life spirit of the season.

RELATED: 5 Things to Know About How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Narrated by Pharrell Williams and spiced by a tailor-made signature song (Tyler, the Creator’s “I Am the Grinch”), The Grinch adds a benign but lore-friendly new backstory that explains Cindy’s need to deliver Santa an urgent Christmas wish. It fits like a glove with Seuss’ heartwarming old-school source material, while blending wonderfully into the whimsy of Illumination’s beautifully-rendered Whoville holiday village. The movie even gives the Grinch himself his own origin story, explored with an earnest and almost tear-jerking perspective that shows how yesteryear’s little green fella — orphaned and deprived of all the family holiday happiness around him — could grow up to loathe the season as a cold-hearted adult.

Cumberbatch’s Grinch is also less of a danger-skirting crazy character than Carrey’s, a trait that’ll either endear him or distance him from audiences… depending on their Seuss-primed point of view. He’s more of a grump than an outright-scary loose cannon in this film, but in keeping with the story’s larger message (and Cindy Lou’s undefeated optimism), there’s still a place for him in Illumination’s open-hearted Christmas community; it’s a place packed with kid-friendly characters who’re all, in their own ways, relatable and sweet.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

The Grinch holds his dog Max up by the scruff in How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Then there’s the 1966 TV special that started it all, and it’s tough these days to view the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas! without at least a little bit of weighted sentiment. With a title song sung by longtime Disney voice veteran Thurl Ravenscroft and Boris Karloff’s inimitable Grinch-y baritone narration threading through the whole tale, it’s a guaranteed 26-minute trigger for holiday nostalgia.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! stands apart from its later conventional feature-film counterparts, staying true to the verse-based rhymes of Seuss’ classic story while straying not a single Grinch-y inch from its short-and-sweet premise. Just the same as in the book, this Grinch doesn’t need to pad out a backstory with reflections on how his sad younger life honed his mean-spirited edge; he’s just a ready-made Scrooge, and that’s all there is to it. Visually, it’s Christmas-y in a wholly original period-specific way: Chuck Jones’ unmistakable animation style, plus the film’s total fidelity in giving life to Seuss’ original illustrated book characterizations, means you’re not seeing just an idyllic Whoville that’s awash 24/7 in reds and greens, but a lot of 1960s-vintage yellows, pinks, purples, and oranges and blues, too… and don’t ask us how, but somehow, it all really does look like Christmas.

See how tough it is to favor one Grinch over another? There’s not a regret to be found snuggling in for any one of Dr. Seuss’ well-made story-to-screen adaptations, so it really is all just a matter of preference. Hey, it takes a long time for the roast beast to simmer, so dial the oven way down and just binge the whole series. By the end, we promise you’ll be a pro at picking your furry green favorite.

Watch all three Dr. Seuss classics on Peacock: Jim Carrey in Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (streaming here), Benedict Cumberbatch in The Grinch (streaming here), and the original Chuck Jones animated feature How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (streaming here).