The 1966 television special How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is a masterpiece at least three times over. First, it's one of the greatest of all Christmas stories told in an audio-visual medium, filling its 26 minutes with exactly the correct amount of warm and fuzzy sentiment, wry cynicism to keep said sentiment in check, and simple fabulistic morality about community and anti-materialism. Second, it's easily the best adaptation of Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel's many wonderful picture books (though 1970's Horton Hears a Who!, made by mostly the same creative team, is solid, and there are some very fine shorts made by different studios in the 1940s). Third, it is one of the late triumphs in the career of director Chuck Jones, who had spent the 1950s redefining the animation department at Warner Bros. as a playground for his distinctive comic timing and highly expressive, minimalist facial animation, and then spent the 1960s redefining it again as a laboratory for experiments in a kind of pure modernist aesthetic devoted to color and sharp, thick lines. We cannot call Grinch the ultimate in this late form of Jonesian aesthetic only because it came a year after the incredible geometric love story The Dot and the Line (which, like Grinch, was made for MGM, after he'd left Warner), but it otherwise feels like the natural end-point of everything Jones had been working towards for a decade.

But let's, for now, stick with the first two. The original story of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, published in 1957, is basically a riff on A Christmas Carol: a grumpy old asshole finds people's loud, ebullient celebrations of the holiday to be profoundly annoying, and also presumes that people only celebrate it for trashy, materialist reasons. His experiences on the night before Christmas lead him to a revelation, and the discovery that Christmas (at least, the wholly secular Christmas in question) is not an excuse for mankind's avarice, but a celebration of its greatest merits. The ghosts and tragic backstory are removed in this case, replaced by Seuss's characeristic wordplay and gorgeously maxi-minimalist illustrations full of curlicues and caricatures and bold empty spaces. The animated special retains half of that: it includes nearly every single line from the short book (the visual style is much more Termite Terrace than Seuss), most of them recited in the impeccable tones of Boris Karloff, who narrates the story and voices the Grinch himself with a snide snarl that distinguishes the two roles just enough without sacrificing the natural warmth of his voice. It sounds exactly like what it is: having a friendly storyteller read a bedtime story and kindly giving in to a child's exhortation to "do the voices".

If there's a problem with all of this, and after literally dozens of viewings spanning literally all of my life, I'm still not sure that there's not, it's that Karloff's exquisite reading of Seuss's generous anti-consumerism isn't actually the same thing as the animated comedy that Jones and his animation team wanted to make. They complement each other, to be sure. Seuss's writing, though deeply moralistic and driven by easily-graspable messages, is so invested in the author's odd sense of humor - literary and delicate, but also vaguely alien and anarchically surreal - that it never ever feels fuzzy-wuzzy and saccharine, and the cartoon's embrace of zippy physical comedy and visual gags works in a similar way to knock some of the sugar plums out of the traditional Christmas boilerplate. But it's definitely not Christmassy in that respect, not even really in the humanist, secular Christmas of the text: it feels, in places, more like one of the Jones-directed Coyote & Road Runner shorts, one that happens to take place on the snow rather than in a desert.

No matter. The story's heart remains intact, emerging not just in the happy, triumphant tones in which Karloff reads the final couplets, but even in smaller moments such as the exchange between the Grinch and little Cindy Lou Who, voiced with awestruck delight by voice acting legend June Foray, where even in the midst of a nasty-minded joke, the film manages to find something warm and generous (it helps that the cartoon's Cindy Lou is even more adorable than Seuss's, owing to the giant, bright blue eyes she's been given here). The sweet-and-salty mixture throughout works terrifically well, from Seuss's more sardonic lines to the justly-iconic song "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch", in which yet another voice acting legend, Thurl Ravenscroft, lobs well-crafted insults at the title character in his gorgeous bass rasp. That the soundtrack won a Grammy is precisely right: you could close your eyes and enjoy this as a particularly effective book on tape, undoubtedly the best recitation of Seuss out there.

But then, close your eyes and you're missing the last masterpiece of one of the great animation directors in history. By this point, Jones's interests - and, we must be absolutely certain to also point out, the interests of the great Maurice Noble, Grinch's production designer, and the absolutely irreplaceable layout artist on most of Jones's best shorts all the way back to 1952's Rabbit Seasoning (he was probably more responsible than any other one person for the Coyote shorts looking the way they do) - had turned towards solid blocks of color with the impression of spaces rather than the actual portrayal of backgrounds. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! isn't the most radical experiment in this direction - the 1956 Daffy Duck & Porky Pig short Deduce, You Say! still looks shocking after 60 years and change - but it is possibly the most comprehensive, with the film dominated by severely bright, primary color backgrounds against which the severely bright, lime-green Grinch stands as a striking visual object purely at the level of color contrast. It's also kind of amazing in that the entire film is building up to a shift in the sky color from blue to magenta, and it's really this shifts rather than anything in the narration, or in the playful image of the Grinch's heart growing three sizes, where the film's emotional climax takes place.

There is such extreme joy to be had in the film's feverish, oversatured color palette, in fact, that it's almost possible to lose sight of the incredible character animation happening within those colors. The Grinch is a perfect cartoon character: he has nothing but extreme emotional states, all of them communicated through strong, caricatured poses, which bend his scrawny-limbed, pot-bellied form around through some lovely stretching exercises. There are the pure jokes, like the way he slithers around a flour like some fat, furry snake; there are the moments of pictorial acting, such as his smug asshole like, leaning heavily on his arm as he prepares to descend into his first chimney, and looking startlingly like Bugs Bunny in one of Jones's treatments of that character. What I like best, though, is where the director and his animators are just straight-up showing off. There is, for example, the moment when the Grinch has his wonderful, awful idea, and the film stops for a close-up as his entire face moves in one perfect, sinewy set of movements, gliding smoothly from one shape to the next as his mouth stretches into a sharp, triangular leer, his eyes squint into little slashes of yellow, and the little tufts of hair or whatever on the top of his head curl into little devil horns. It's the smoothest passage of animation in the entire show (it tends to rely, as does much television animation throughout history and almost all of it in the 1960s, on a form of quasi-limited animation, dominated by still poses with some small gestures), and perfectly designed to take the merely grumpy, lumpy design of the Grinch and transform it into something serpentine and vicious and disgusting, all in one a gorgeous depiction of squash-and-stretch principles. It is, I say with all consideration and sobriety, my favorite piece of character animation produced in the United States in the 1960s.

Almost as good, and coming from the exact opposite direction, is the Grinch's series of puzzled expressions as he tries to suss out why his plan to ruin Christmas doesn't work. Here, the animation team relies on strong, iconic poses, with the Grinch's face bending into weird but immediately legible expressions of frustration, while he turns back to look at his dog Max and deliver individual lines of dialogue. The turns back and forth are perfectly smooth, but it's really the held poses that drive the scene, stopping the momentum of Karloff's line deliveries to maximise the character's annoyance and lack of comprehension, while also giving the viewer something strong and bold to look at.

In between those extremes of pure fluidity and pure posing, the Grinch serves as a vessel for every kind of distended movement and animation that Jones and company could throw at him. The extremes of bodily morphing Jones would lay upon Daffy Duck from time to time aren't on display - this is fundamentally not a grotesque short - but otherwise, the Grinch is a perfectly elastic figure, with his huge feet, potato-shaped head, plump body, and thin, bony arms; he can be light and bouncy or heavy and squishy as needed, but there's always a kind of lankiness to how he moves in space that is truly marvelous to watch. His arms and legs define all the shape of his movements even as his body defines their space, and that results in a complete, organic wholeness that's incredibly appealing, considering how deliberately unlikable he's meant to be, with his eye-searing color and sour facial expressions.

He's not Seuss's Grinch, when all is said and done, and that's a minor limitation but a persistent one. It's also not Seuss's landscape, which doesn't really matter at all: the scrawling lines of Noble's backgrounds are midcentury line drawings in color, more like something from UPA in the '50s than Seuss in anything. But it's an enduring classic for a reason: it's bright, funny, snarky, sweet, and its 26 minutes clip by at a breezy pace that's completely disguised by Karloff's relaxed recitation (I do, however, find it gets a little bogged down, just for a moment, when it introduces a "sled race down the mountain" sequence after it's already had its climax and should really just hurry along to the finale). This is an exemplary example of artistically inventive animation on a budget, and wringing profound emotions out of basic tropes and a straightforward redemption arc. I have never once let a December go by without viewing it at least once, and it hasn't lost a fraction of its charm or potency in all of those years. Its brightness, cleanness, tightness, and wit all go in to making it feel as fresh and alive as any other piece of animation from its generation, now and forever.