Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 23, 2017)
Before it hit movie screens, I couldn’t decide if the 2000 live-action version of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas sounded like a disastrous idea or if it looked like money in the bank. On one hand, the movie would tamper with an acknowledged holiday classic, the original animated TV special animated TV edition from the 1960s.
Remakes usually work best when they take on somewhat-forgotten properties. Since millions of folks grew up on yearly viewings of The Grinch, the film would enter dangerous territory.
On the other hand, those millions of people opened up a ready-made audience who felt familiar with and fond of the material. In addition, many of those who watched it as children grew up and produced kids of their own.
Because the TV version first hit the airwaves in 1966, lots of little ones emerged in the years between its debut and the feature film in 2000. As such, a new take on The Grinch could encounter an audience of folks and their progeny with positive attitudes toward it, especially since it seemed like a flick that could be enjoyed by the whole family.
In addition, The Grinch attracted Ron Howard, a very successful director over the years, and it would feature Jim Carrey in the title role. The cartooniest actor in existence, Carrey felt highly appropriate for this part, and his casting lent a strong level of credibility and star power to the project.
Despite my doubts, the second half of this equation dominated. The Grinch emerged as a serious hit during the 2000 holiday season, as it eventually took in $260 million and grabbed the spot as the top-grossing movie of the year. Apparently no one felt upset with the new direction taken by the classic.
I intended to check out The Grinch during its theatrical run, but I never got around to it, so I didn’t see it until home video. Although I like the animated version of the story, I don’t feel any great attachment to it or defensiveness about it, so I figured I’d not be bothered by any liberties taken. After all, the movie runs roughly four times as long as the TV show, so clearly they’d need to open up the story to a great extent.
That they did, and the result is something of a disaster. I definitely don’t like The Grinch, though my disaffection has less to do with the padding added to the tale than with the crude alterations in tone and spirit. The film version of The Grinch takes a warm and witty holiday tale and makes it an obnoxious and grating piece of noise.
At the start of the film, we meet the denizens of Whoville, a burg that apparently exists inside of a snowflake. The Whos adore Christmas, and they obsess about it virtually all year long, so when the date finally approaches, the folks enter a state of mania.
However, all’s not perfect in Whoville, as little Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen) seems to have lost that Christmas spirit. Her mailman dad Lou Lou (Bill Irwin) appears sympathetic but confused, and her mom Betty Lou (Molly Shannon) cares too much about producing the most garishly decorated house in the neighborhood to take much notice of this concern. Betty appears particularly fixated on topping the display mounted by snooty neighbor Martha May Whovier (Christine Baranski).
Lurking in the background in his mountaintop cave is the Grinch (Carrey), a bizarre furry green dude who loathes the Whos and Christmas with equal passion. He exists as something of a town bogeyman, and folks are terrified to even approach his territory.
After a brief encounter with the Grinch, Cindy starts to wonder about him, and she interviews townsfolk to learn more about his past. At that point we see a flashback to his childhood and find out why the Grinch became so nasty. We also get some backstory about Martha May, town mayor May Who (Jeffrey Tambor) and their connection to the Grinch.
Cindy makes it her mission to reintegrate the Grinch into Who-ciety, so she campaigns to get the people to choose him as the “chairman of cheer” at their “Whobilation”. To the dismay of the mayor, she succeeds, and eventually she convinces the Grinch to come to the big celebration.
Inevitably, things go awry - mainly due to the mayor’s obnoxiousness - and the Grinch becomes more bitter than ever. As such, he determines to ruin Christmas for the Whos, and he steals all of their presents and holiday doodads.
Nearly an hour into its 105-minute running time, this is the point at which the movie finally links to the TV show. Until the Grinch decides to steal Christmas, the film exists on its own, but the final act much more closely hews to the plotting of the original.
Of course, it still takes some liberties, but I’ll leave those unspecified so that I omit any potential spoilers. The ending stays in the same ballpark as the TV program, though, so don’t expect any radical differences other than those caused by the film’s unique characters like the Mayor, Martha May and Lou.
However, much about the movie The Grinch does seem very different from the TV show, and probably the most significant alteration occurs due to the tone of the lead character himself. In the TV program, the Grinch appears as a nasty piece of work with no backstory.
Grinch hates everything and everybody, and that’s that, so we don’t bother with much context. The movie, however, attempts to give us a psychological background for the character, as we learn how he came to be so bitter.
This choice significantly harms the product. In the TV show, the Grinch’s change of heart comes across as a big revelation and it supports the “true meaning of Christmas”.
Here, however, we feel sorry for the Grinch well before this happens, and that undercurrent makes the overall result less compelling. The background almost makes the Grinch a victim, and it’s much harder to take him seriously as a vicious ogre when we’ve seen his soft side. Sure, this creates a more well rounded character, but a cartoon story like this doesn’t need that kind of depth, and the extra dimension feels awkward and useless.
On the surface, Carrey seems like the perfect choice to play such a broad character. After all, he shows a cartoony personality in much of his comedic work, so who better to portray this sort of role? Unfortunately, Carrey’s hammy tendencies get the best of him, and he comes across as more over the top than usual, but with less charm.
A lot of the problem stems from Carrey’s particular talents. He’s a grand physical comedian, and his expressive face brings much to the table.
Unfortunately, the Grinch costume buries Carrey under layers of makeup and prosthetics, and the actor’s skills rarely emerge. If anything, he tries harder than usual to make a physical impression, and these attempts come across as overbearing at times.
The remaining actors fare little better, though it’s hard to imagine how endearing they could become since they’re also submerged under creepy makeup. Boy, does that “Who” look seem unappealing!
Granted, it feels like an interesting touch to make the performers so closely resemble their animated predecessors, but the results seem very off-putting. It’s hard to look at them without constantly thinking about the ugly makeup.
The Grinch features some good performers in supporting roles, but the movie’s really all about Carrey, so they get little to do for the most part. Irwin seems excessively bland as Lou, and he fails to make any impression.
Ironically, Baranski looks better than ever as Martha May. Personally, I think she got the part because she already resembled a Who, but whatever the case, she appears more attractive than normal. Unfortunately, she’s unable to add any spark or personality to her role.
Tambor comes across like nothing more than a bland baddie, and his character feels more out of place than the others. Actually, he only appears odd in the context of the original program, as unfortunately, he fits in all too well in the “new” Whoville.
In the TV show, the Whos were uniformly kind and pleasant. Initially the Grinch thought that they were cold and materialistic and that he could subvert their holiday celebration simply through the elimination of its tangible assets. He developed as a person only when he learned that the Whos really didn’t care about all of that and they were more concerned with the spiritual meaning of the day.
In the movie, the Whos get to the same point, but it seems much less palatable, largely because of characters like the mayor. Granted, he takes the negativity and self-obsession to an extreme, but most of the Whos come across as being stuck on the holiday doodads. They’re showy and obsessed with superficial things, and unlike TV Whos, they appear plenty ticked off when the Grinch steals Christmas.
Of course, the movie tries to bring about an ending that resembles the one in the TV show, but it feels forced and artificial. Indeed, The Grinch embraces all of the things that the original tried to negate.
The film seems cold, crass and crude, and it feels like it exists just to move merchandise, so any attempts to support the “true meaning of Christmas” come across as patronizing and tepid. The Grinch wants to have it both ways, but it can’t, and only the obnoxious, showy side wins.
As the only Who who tries to plumb the depths of the holiday, Cindy seems just as fake. It doesn’t help that Momsen offers a child actress straight out of a catalog, and she appears to exist simply to push the plot.
In the original, Cindy made only a brief appearance when the Grinch broke into her house. Here she’s turned into a leading character, and the expansion creates its own problems, a lot of which revolve around the bland and saccharine performance by little Momsen. She looks cute but nothing more, and she adds no spark or personality to this pivotal part.
Cindy feels like padding, as does much of the movie. Like I mentioned earlier, the movie lasts more than four times as long as the TV show, and it needs to bring a lot of extra material to the table.
Unfortunately, all of this footage feels like the filler that it is, so the film tries to expand the tale but it doesn’t offer anything interesting. Overall, the new scenes come across as persistent repetitions on the same themes, as we watch endless shots of Carrey’s vamping and goofiness.
The Grinch also suffers from the snide attitude that pervaded many films of its era. Rather than actually attempt genuine emotion and feeling, The Grinch goes with a satirical presentation much of the time.
It wants desperately to be wicked and pointed, but it consistently falls flat. The characters break the “fourth wall” on many occasions, and lots of other self-referential material appears. It all seems forced and gratuitous.
As does The Grinch itself. I went into the film with a reasonably positive outlook: I didn’t expect to be bowled over by the movie, but I thought it’d be an entertaining and witty experience.
Unfortunately, the flick brings us nothing more than a crass and pointless exercise that leaves me actively disenchanted. How such a strong roster of participants could produce such an unpleasant and witless enterprise seems unfathomable.
Footnote: when I first saw the film in 2001, my negative assessment of The Grinch was shared by one of my dogs. Whenever the Grinch himself appeared on screen, Biscuits started to yap and growl at the screen. Good judgment, puppy!