For more than 30 years, How the Grinch Stole Christmas has been a holiday season TV classic. The 22-minute cartoon, based on the book by Dr. Seuss and narrated by Boris Karloff, has enchanted multiple generations of children (not to mention adults), and, even with its ready availability on video, it still draws a sizable viewing audience every time it is broadcast.
With the likely exception of the Peanuts Christmas Special, no other seasonal program is as adored and respected as this classic. So, in deciding to transform it into a 90-minute, live action motion picture, director Ron Howard has taken a sizable risk. There are no doubt those who will regard the film as a sacrilege of the most heinous kind.
To Howard’s credit, he has worked extremely hard to keep the spirit of the animated Grinch intact. The text of the Dr. Seuss novel is in place, even though many of it has been added to pad out the running time. In addition, the songs from the TV show have also been incorporated into the movie, though the film adaption of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” could have used a bit less livening up (the simple rendition in the cartoon is more appreciated).
The bright, colorful set design amazes, effectively conveying the happy hamlet of Whoville from the cartoon world to the fantasy-reality one. Of course, one might legitimately ask why, if so much attention was being paid to replicating the animated look and feel in a live action medium, this movie was deemed necessary in the first place.
The answer is no doubt money – How the Grinch Stole Christmas is most likely to make a lot of it. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film – in fact, it’s quite entertaining – but commercial, not creative or artistic, considerations have brought it to the screen.
The film begins with almost one hour of background material about the Grinch and Whoville that was not in either Seuss’ novel or the TV special. We learn all kinds of interesting tidbits intended to fill in supposed “holes” in Grinch lore (not that anyone really noticed).
We are here to understand why the Grinch hates Christmas (it has more to do with bad childhood experiences than with a heart that’s two sizes too small), why he has it in for the Mayor of Whoville, and why Little Cindy Lou-Who spots his soft side so effortlessly.
At last, at about the movie’s two-thirds point, the narrative switches over to following the novel letter-for-letter, and we get a notably faithful re-creation of the cartoon. There is a difference in tone between the two parts of the movie – the part that follows the novel is smoother, has perhaps more narration, and consistently rhymes, while the remainder has a “tacked on” feel. Children won’t notice, however, and the shift isn’t glaring enough that it will bother most grownups – even those who have sat through the TV special countless times.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas‘ major selling point isn’t nostalgia or great production values – it’s rather Jim Carrey. Buried underneath Rick Baker’s flexible makeup, he’s a dead ringer for the creature, yet, though he isn’t physically recognizable, there’s no doubt who’s under all of the green latex and hair.
Lately, Carrey has been working on advancing a reputation as a serious actor, however, in concert with Me, Myself & Irene, How the Grinch Stole Christmas enables him to get back to the kind of antics that made him famous in the first place. His brilliant performance is reminiscent of what he achieved in The Mask, except that here he never lets the special effects upstage him. Carrey’s Grinch is a mixture of Seuss’ creation and Carrey’s personality, with a voice that seems far more like a strange amalgamation of Sean Connery and Jim Backus (Bond meets Magoo!) than it does Karloff.
The character to benefit the most from the script is perhaps Little Cindy Lou-Who, portrayed by charismatic newcomer Taylor Momsen. Cindy is the Grinch’s advocate in Whoville, the sole person who sees the goodness buried deep within. Like the three ghosts in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, she represents the catalyst that transforms the cold-hearted Grinch from a Scrooge into the holiday’s biggest advocate and most devout celebrant. Momsen is amazing in the part; she manages to be adorable without being intolerable – a challenging task for a young actress who probably got the job since she was more adorable than the other would-bes dying for the role.
In addition to Carrey and Momsen, the other actors don’t leave much impression. Jeffrey Tambor portrays the Mayor of Whoville, a man whose hatred against the Grinch dates back to when they were both eight years old. Christine Baranski is the woman who has secretly fallen for the Grinch since before his self-imposed exile to Mount Crumpet.
And Molly Shannon and Bill Irwin join the cast as Little Cindy’s parents. The film is narrated by Anthony Hopkins, who uses his rich voice to set a non-menacing tone. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a fable; it is intended to be entertaining and uplifting but never scary, no matter how frightening the title character might think of himself.
Putting aside the question of whether the movie is necessary in the overall scheme of things, How the Grinch Stole Christmas represents a solid hour and a half of genuine family entertainment. Unlike most live action movies making a similar claim, there is no toilet humor (apparently, Dr. Seuss’ widow had something to do with that), making this a refreshingly “clean” comedy.
For Carrey, whose caged energy is released, this falls just short of a tour de force. Last year, he became Andy Kaufman; this year, it’s the Grinch. He brings animation to the live action, and, surrounded by glittering, amazing sets and computer-spun special effects, Carrey allows Ron Howard’s version of the iconic tale to come across as more of a welcome endeavor than a pointless re-tread.