For decades, the late Theodor S. Geisel (Dr. Seuss) showed the door to all filmmakers who approached him about making a live-action version of his popular 1957 story “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” It’s too bad his wishes did not continue to be honored, as this lavishly appointed production reps a sweet and simple tale gone enormously sour. Shrill, strenuous and entirely without charm, Ron Howard’s attempt at a Christmas classic is an elaborately wrapped empty box that will fool many people into buying it but will not greatly please its recipients; too scary for tykes, the film lacks the magic and fun that older kids want, and many Middle American grown-ups who dutifully drag their sprigs along will end up resenting the film’s unpleasantly negative vibes and it’s failure to provide a good family time. Fame of the source material, Jim Carrey, curiosity value and film’s prominent position at the start of the holiday season assures this heavily merchandised Universal release of strong B.O. out of the gate. Foreign and post-holiday appeal looks thin; in the long run, the 1966 animated version will certainly prevail in viewers’ hearts, if not on the bottom line.
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Dr. Seuss’ fable about a grumpy creature with an undersized heart who tried to ruin Christmas for an entire village quickly took its place alongside Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” as a great story of a Christmas hater converted at the last minute. The illustrated book is distinguished by, among other things, its breezy rhymes and its brevity, qualities that are both lost in this heavy-feeling venture other than in some agreeable turns of phrase gracing Anthony Hopkins’ narration.
But, seeking to give the Grinch some vengeful motivation for wanting to spoil everyone else’s good time, screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” “Wild Wild West”) have given the big green hairball some backstory that makes him a blood brother to Danny DeVito’s Penguin in “Batman Returns.” As if taking this cue, Howard and production designer Michael Corenblith have provided the Grinch with a dark, cavernous mountaintop lair, filled with all manner of loud, clanking junk and devices, from which he plots his assaults on Whoville.
Unfortunately, Ron Howard is no Tim Burton, and what this “Grinch” lacks is a sense of style to put across a slight story that demands it, as well as a point of view on its characters, virtually all of whom come off as disagreeable if not insufferable. From the first moments, when the citizens of Whoville are presented in full Christmas preparedness frenzy, the town seems like a nightmare vision of consumerism run amok, of mercantilism at its most grotesque. It’s impossible to tell if this message was fully intended or not, but it is compounded by the piggish look of the inhabitants, who generally sport pointy, upturned noses, buck teeth and ridiculous hair (Dr. Seuss’ sketchy drawings don’t translate well into flesh and blood) and whose manner is variously pompous, fawning and simple-minded. In short, Whoville, which looks like a collection of life-sized plastic decorations for a vanilla-frosted cake, resembles a curdled Munchkinland so brightly illuminated that one could believe that every light on Universal’s soundstage 12 was turned on.
Given the unappetizing society repped by Whoville, sympathy might easily have shifted to Carrey’s Grinch, a gangly, leather-faced beast with bad teeth and long, whispy-haired fingers who lives inside a kind of warped Matterhorn outside town, his long-suffering mutt Max his only companion. No one has seen this local pariah in years, but Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen), the cute blond daughter of Lou Lou and Betty Lou Who (Bill Irwin and Molly Shannon) and a Christmas skeptic herself, fearlessly knocks on his door, is rejected but nonetheless undertakes a project to uncover the Grinch’s sorry past.
In a non-Seuss flashback that, as much as anything, helps to pad the film out to regular feature length, one learns of the orphan baby Grinch’s arrival in town, his humiliation by the other kids in school (no surprise since, in moppet form, he really does look like a little monster), and his rejection by childhood love Martha May Whovier who, as a present-day adult (Christine Baranski), is being courted by Whoville’s overbearing mayor (Jeffrey Tambor).
Narrative continues to detail Cindy Lou’s misguided nomination of the Grinch as the year’s holiday cheermeister, which triggers the first of Jim Carrey’s two genuinely good scenes, a brief soliloquy in which he ponders his busy schedule (filled with indulgence in self-loathing, peering into the abyss and dining with himself) before considering what to wear to the award ceremony.
Latter functions purely as a madcap prelude to his wreaking havoc on Whoville, itself an appetizer to his grand plot: Posing as Santa Claus so as to remove all the presents from every house in town. Frenzied sequence boasts a couple of good gags, such as the Grinch removing sugarplums from a kid’s dream, and one truly gross one, in which he presses his dog’s butthole against the mouth of his rival, the sleeping mayor.
Once his dastardly deeds are complete, the Grinch retreats to his mountain lair with a bulging sack of presents, whereupon Carrey delivers Good Scene No. 2, spasms of lurching seizures as his shriveled heart begins growing, much to the Grinch’s alarm. “Max, help me, I’m feeling!” the Grinch shrieks as he finds himself being co-opted into the realm of compassion and goodwill.
Buried beneath a fuzzy suit and makeup wizard Rick Baker’s remarkably flexible Grinch face, Carrey tries out all sorts of intonations, vocal pitches and delivery styles, his tough guy posturing reminding at times of Cagney and his sibilant S’s recalling Bogart. His antic gesturing and face-making hit the mark at times, but at other moments seem arbitrary and scattershot. Furthermore, his free-flowing tirades, full of catch-all allusions and references, are pitched for adult appreciation and look destined to sail right over the heads of pre-teens.
From the dark corners of the Grinch’s cave to the snow-covered streets of Whoville, pic is exceedingly unattractive to look at, and Howard’s prosaic direction possesses no stylization to match the extreme design of the sets, costumes and makeup. Musical elements are diverse, ranging from James Horner’s decent original score to several songs new and old.