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Dr. Suess' How the Grinch Stole Christmas   C-

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman (based on the book by Dr. Suess)
Cast: Jim Carrey, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski, Bill Irwin, Molly Shannon, Taylor Momsen, Anthony Hopkins.

Review by Rob Vaux

I don't know what we could have expected from The Grinch, but it was certainly a step up from what it could have been. The trailers gave all the indication of a soul-searing monstrosity, a grotesque holiday immolation that would give Battlefield: Earth a run for worst picture of the year. Instead, it comes across not so much bad as tragically misguided, a perplexingly competent film that takes on the impossible task of updating Dr. Seuss' classic tale with a live-action production. The final impression is like watching a herd of elephants perform Swan Lake: you wonder less at their skill than at what could have possibly possessed them in the first place.

Have no doubt, The Grinch has some sharp filmmakers in its corner. Besides director Ron Howard, it features names like Rick Baker, Rita Ryeck and Don Peterman on its production staff. These are not untalented people and they pull out all the stops to conjure up the famous village of Whoville and its sour-pussed neighbor just north. Everything about the production reflects Dr. Seuss' unique sensibilities -- the cartoonish architecture, the bustling townscape, and the chipmunk-faced Whos who really, really, really like Christmas a lot. The script manages to hold onto those elements while adding a now-standard dollop of self-referential humor to keep the grown-ups from growing restless. Their efforts put an handsome polish on the surroundings, and ensure that The Grinch never descends into the realm of the truly awful.

Unfortunately, the difficulties inherent in the project can't be overcome with nice pacing and good makeup. Most of the shortcomings become apparent when held up against Chuck Jones's infinitely superior cartoon version, and although overt comparisons aren't necessarily fair, they do demonstrate the impossible task this version of The Grinch sets for itself. Jones, for example, had the freedom to keep his movie short, thus ensuring that the original Seuss story (a slender volume to say the least) wouldn't be overburdened. Howard and Co. simply don't have that luxury: they have to fill an hour and 40 minutes, as a standard feature film dictates. The original story can't possibly fill that time, so the screenwriters have embellished it, adding an hour-long background on who the Grinch (Jim Carrey) is and why he hates Christmas so much. They also delve deeper into the lives of the Whos themselves, revealing a heretofore unknown romantic triangle between Mayor May Who (Jeffery Tambor), socialite Martha May Whovier (Christine Baranski) and the Green One, as well as developing the family of little Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen, an appropriately adorable moppet).

Unfortunately, this necessary embellishment ultimately works against the story's point. We see far too much of the Whos to really believe in their good-heartedness. Venal, petty, and shallow, parroting cheerful mantra while competing with their neighbors over holiday lights and pudding contests, they bear no resemblance to quietly wise occupants of Seuss' original story. They're basically a group of folks who richly deserve to have their Christmas stolen, and only Cindy Lou's efforts to find some meaning in the holiday makes them realize that "maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store" after all. The effect blunts Seuss' subtle wit and undermines the story's famous moral.

The Jones cartoon also has an edge in chosen medium. Animation allows a fluidity of motion and style that lends itself easily to Seuss' drawings. The Grinch can literally slink around the presents, while his dog Max can pull an impossibly heavy sled up the mountainside, all with a grace and artistry that Howard's version can't hope to achieve. He gives it his all -- bringing a dazzling array of stuntwork and CGI effects to bear -- but the results feel strangely flat. You can sense the artifice, and see the effects as effects rather than reality. Instead of buying into the world of Whoville you find yourself looking for the wires, which consequently destroys the material's natural magic.

With such awkwardness in place, you'd think Jim Carrey at least could produce the requisite cartoonishness. Decked out in green shag, sporting a bulldog's muzzle and a nasty grin, Carrey's spastic performance certainly conjures up the right amount of energy. He has some deliciously nasty moments, and The Grinch succeeds best when it gives in to his character's cold, black little heart. Even his efforts, however, eventually work to the detriment of the film. While consistently amusing, he nevertheless fails to shed his standard on-screen persona. We never believe that he's the Grinch; he's simply Ace Ventura in green. His increasing amount of unmistakably Carrey-esque gags and one-liners only distance him from the character he's supposed to be playing. By the time he breaks out in a rendition of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," (drawing more unfortunate comparisons to the cartoon), you've stopped believing in him all together.

Given all of these problems, it's a testament to the cast and crew that they produce anything remotely watchable. We should probably be grateful that The Grinch is merely flawed and mediocre, not the flat-out disaster it could have been. But the source material sets a very high standard and a misfire is still a misfire, no matter who's pulling the trigger. One simply cannot translate a gentle parable against holiday materialism into a bloated, big-budget motion picture event like this one. The filmmakers can take some small comfort in the quixotic nature of their task, but it still doesn't make How The Grinch Stole Christmas a worthwhile film.

Review published 11.24.2000.

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