It was only a matter of time before the late, great Theodor S. Geisel's
classic 1957 children's book "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," which later
was turned into a television special that has become an unforgettable part of
many people's holiday rituals, would be adapted into a full-length feature
film. The story is highly visual and pleasing, with a clean-cut premise that
concludes with an important moral that all children, and adults, can relate
to and understand. There is a reason, however, why the popular television
special was only 25 minutes long. In the tradition of all of Dr. Seuss'
books, the tale is simplistic and just short enough to be read the whole way
through at bedtime. In turning it into a 98-minute motion picture, the
"Grinch" that we have all grown to know only comes into effect in the final
half-hour, with a whole preceding hour of padding that becomes problematic.
Ever since the Grinch (Jim Carrey) was little, he struggled to fit in with
all of the other Whos down in Whoville, but his offbeat personality and
green, hairy body worked against him. Now an adult who lives upon the
mountain that looms over the snow-covered city, the Grinch has become little
more than a myth to the townspeople, who treat him as if he was the Loch Ness
Monster or Bigfoot whenever he goes out in public. Furthermore, his attitude
doesn't help matters--the Grinch is purposefully a dastardly troublemaker who
seems to hate everything and everybody, with a daily planner that includes
things such as looking into the abyss and searching "for a way to solve world
peace--tell no one."
As Christmas looms on the horizon, and the Whos anxiously buy loads of
presents and work on their decorations, the Grinch becomes all the more
restless to not let them get away with another holiday gone by without a
hitch. Enter little Cindy Lou-Who (Taylor Momsen), who is also having a bit
of Christmas doubt, as she witnesses everyone around her absorbed with
gift-buying and receiving, yet is determined to reassure herself that the
holiday should mean more to everyone. Making her way up to the Grinch's lair,
Cindy Lou is not afraid of him, but amused, as she sees the sweetness just
screaming to get out behind his cold, yellow eyes and monstrous exterior.
Following a plan of Cindy Lou's that ultimately goes awry and sends the
Grinch reeling back to his cave with even more anger than before, the movie
finally takes off where the famed Dr. Seuss story begins. It is also at this
point that the film picks up its pace and grows truly involving and magical.
With only a matter of time before the Grinch realizes his mistakes, and the
Whos inevitably discover that Christmas isn't about what you receive, but who
you've got in your life, the picture finds its footing and climaxes on a
warm-hearted and lovely note.
What comes before this point is, unfortunately, flawed. Director Ron Howard
(1989's "Parenthood") obviously shows an adoration for the story he is
telling, but it is the screenplay by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman that
proves fairly uneven. The first hour, whose purpose is to develop the
Grinch's backstory and discuss just what made him who he is today, seems like
unnecessary time-filler and is almost eventless. What is most misguided,
though, is the treatment of the Whos, who are not at all like they were in
the original story. Looking as if their original physical chemistry involved
a mouse and a human breeding, the Whos are so materialistic, and the
supporting characters so underdeveloped, that it leaves a sense of cold
disattachment hanging over the proceedings. Where the townspeople should be
lovable characters, they almost deserve every "bad" thing that the Grinch
does to them. It is only at the end that the Whos, as well as the Grinch,
have a life-changing epiphany that almost makes you want to forgive their
previous actions--but not quite.
In Jim Carrey, "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" has found a star
attraction who completely runs the show. Carrey, unrecognizable behind mounds
of green makeup and latex but with the same delightfully manic energy that he
usually has, evokes a great deal of sympathy from his well-known grinchy
character, despite his evil deeds. Just as Cindy Lou can see that the Grinch
is just a misunderstood person who simply wants to be loves, so can the
viewers, which makes his turnaround in the finale all the more effective. How
Carrey endured such a daunting makeup process is anyone's guess, but he sure
does bring life to a character he was born to play.
The heroine of the film, young Cindy Lou-Who, who "was no more than two" in
the book, has been transformed into a smart 7-year-old who only wishes that
those around her would realize the true meaning of Christmas. As played by
newcomer Taylor Momsen, she is a vivid and cute child who may be little, but
is courageous and free-thinking. Momsen thankfully does not turn in an
unctuous performance, or strains for cuteness, but is more unaffected and
assured. The solo song she sings, "Christmas, Where Are You?," is gently
beautiful, one of the best things about the first half because it isn't going
for flashiness or bawdy humor.
The rest of the Whos, some supplied by strong performers such as Christine
Baranski (as Martha May Whovier, who still holds a crush on the Grinch for
her grade school days), Bill Irwin (Lou Lou-Who, Cindy's father), and Molly
Shannon (Betty Lou-Who, Cindy's mother), come off as so shallow and
underscripted that they make nearly no impression at all. The fact that they,
too, all resemble mice people, is an ill-advised choice that the movie could
have done without, and been better for it.
If the Whos don't keep up with the enchantment of the holiday itself, the
lavish production design, by Michael Corinblith, does. While some sets are a
little too artificial for their own good, Whoville is, nonetheless, a sight
to behold. With an endless array of mountains surrounding the cozy town that
remains blanketed in a thick cover of freshly-fallen snow, the movie is a
dazzler for the eyes.
"Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" lacks the life and joy required
to make this movie a modern-day family classic, but it is mostly
entertaining. The fact that the thin story had to be stretched out to 90
minutes to begin with would be quite a daunting task, and director Ron Howard
has given it his best shot--even if his best shot is not nearly the best the
film could have been. Visionary filmmaker Tim Burton (1990's "Edward
Scissorhands"), for example, would have been perfect to take the Dr. Seuss
yarn on. His specialty in artistically mixing fantasy, sweetness, and the
darker corners of the human condition might have made "The Grinch" a shade
scarier, and not for the youngest of kiddies, but think about it. Aren't
1939's "The Wizard of Oz" and 1971's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"
masterpieces because of the unpredictable wickedness that surrounded their
stories and characters? "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," while
fine in its own right, could have certainly benefitted from a little more of
that mischievous nature.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman