The music icon says the animated project was a full-circle moment for him in many ways because of his own childhood connection to Seuss stories, and the dovetailing of The Grinch’s release with the 25th anniversary of The Nightmare Before Christmas (for which Elfman famously penned several songs). “I grew up on Dr. Seuss, and I actually credit him with myself as a lyric writer,” Elfman tells EW. “All [The Nightmare Before Christmas] songs are really inspired by Dr. Seuss metering and rhythm in the lyrics. The musicality, the metric quality, it all goes back to Dr. Seuss.”
Elfman even once met Theodore Geisel, the man behind the Seuss pseudonym, as Geisel wanted to collaborate with him on a potential musical based on Oh, the Places You’ll Go!. That didn’t come to fruition, but Elfman never stopped treasuring Seuss and the role the author’s stories played in his happiest childhood memories.
It was Illumination’s dedication to Seuss’ original story and whimsy that convinced Elfman to hop on board. Signing on to The Grinch, Elfman says, “I knew the film was going to be Dr. Seuss, that they weren’t going to transform it that much. Obviously, they were going to have to change it into a feature-length film and add a lot, but I felt like they were still going to be respectful to the Seuss spirit.”
Part of that respect including paying homage to the original songs from the 1966 television cartoon How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which have become beloved Christmas standards. Elfman says he wasn’t actually familiar with the Whoville “Welcome Christmas” song before working on The Grinch. “I’m definitely a Halloween kid,” he says. “I really only learned to get into Christmas when I had kids because Christmastime, for me, I was more of the Grinch before his conversion.”
Elfman says his disaffection with Christmas stemmed from feeling alienated by the holiday, being the only Jewish kid in his friend group. “Christmas was one of the things that set me apart,” he says. “What I imagined happening around Christmastime was very much Whoville at all my friends’ house. I really imagined them holding hands around the tree and singing Christmas carols.”
But once Elfman felt his own heart grow two sizes when it came to Christmas, incorporating the original songs become one of the highlights of writing his score for The Grinch. “The ‘Welcome’ song was easy,” he says. “We were playing the song twice in the film, so it was just how to score it and then pick up the melody and have it kind of lift up and explode when his heart does.”
When it came to the other hit song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” Elfman had a slightly more complex task, collaborating with rapper Tyler the Creator on the iconic tune first recorded by Thurl Ravenscroft. Elfman was impressed when the production team told him they’d selected Tyler to reimagine the song. “That is a definite bold move,” he says.
The process was highly collaborative, with Tyler sending Elfman his take on the song and the two going back and forth to find the perfect balance between preserving recognizable elements of the song and leaning into a more contemporary take. The composer describes Tyler’s initial pass at the song as “laid back,” and recalls that some of his suggestions for tweaks were chord adjustments to bring more of the original sound of the track back into the piece. “I just didn’t want to destroy the essence of his take because artistically I never want to be the one to whitewash an artist’s work that I respect,” Elfman says. “It was a bit of a tightrope act between what I know what the studio would like, and I didn’t want to push him into an area he was uncomfortable.”
Their collaboration resulted in a fresh reimagining of the song that includes Tyler’s rapping as well as a children’s choir, which Elfman says was Tyler’s suggestion. Elfman’s job was to help shape the song into one that would jibe with the story of the film. “They loved the idea of the song, but they had a hard time figuring out how it would play against the scene in the movie, so that became my mission,” he says. “I just tried to give it more of a sense of playing the scene, while still staying true to his song.”
Elfman and Tyler’s partnership went so well that it also produced a second song that plays over the credits, “I Am the Grinch,” which Tyler the Creator wrote, produced, and performed while Elfman assisted on string arrangements. Elfman says he was blown away by the song when Tyler first played it for him. “He was like, ‘I wrote this this morning,’” Elfman recalls. “He played me the second song, and I’m like, ‘Oh s—! This thing is great.”
Enthusiastic about the song, Elfman brought it to the film’s producers and directors at his next presentation. “[Tyler] is so meta-creative, and I couldn’t believe he just dropped this thing together in no time,” he recalls. “It really blew my mind.”
In many ways, Elfman has been circling The Grinch for years. He notes that The Nightmare Before Christmas, with its tale of a central character stealing Christmas, takes direct inspiration from Dr. Seuss’ tale. “I’m really lucky that I got to play musically two sides: the Christmas side of Christmas spirit and the Halloweenland side of the desire for Christmas spirit. It was kind of perfect that way — the timing [of] it coming out [alongside] the 25-year-anniversary of the other.” Our heart could grow a few sizes just thinking about it.
The Grinch opens today in theaters nationwide.