How the Grinch Stole Christmas
review by Joe Barlow, 24 November 2000

Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the clearest indicator of Hollywood’s creative stagnation that I’ve yet seen. I’ve never understood the entertainment industry’s incessant need to remake artistic works that were perfect -- or at least much better -- the first time around, yet every week brings more recycled material into movie theaters and onto radio airwaves. Why should studios try to nurture new talent when the public at large is more than willing to fork out its money to see or hear moderately different versions of the same old stories and songs?

Narrated by Anthony Hopkins in a voice so dark and husky that I wondered if he’d begin expressing the desire to eat Cindy Lou Who’s liver with fava beans before it was all over, this live-action adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas relies on its audience’s love for the classic Dr. Seuss book of the same name to carry it through. Most of the elements of the original storyline are in evidence here: the cantankerous Grinch (Jim Carrey), a furry chap who may be a distant cousin of Oscar the Grouch, lives on the outskirts of the merry village of Whoville, a community that delights in its annual Christmas celebration. The Grinch, however, despises these shenanigans, and hatches a scheme to ruin Christmas for everyone in town. With the help of his bumbling but well-intentioned dog Max, the Grinch sabotages the Yuletide season, only to discover that the spirit of Christmas does not, after all, center on commercialism, but on love and understanding.

On the surface, the storyline sounds quite faithful to Seuss’s beloved tale. But Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman, the film’s screenwriters, have missed the point of the original book, and in so doing, have lost every nuance of the plot. In Seuss’s book, the Grinch was a singularly unpleasant individual, full of malice. Ron Howard and his crew, however, have turned one of Christmas’s all-time greatest villains into a pouty, put-upon loser, wallowing in loneliness and waves of self-pity. The Grinch here is not so much a force of malevolence as a misunderstood loner, having suffered through a lifetime of abuse at the hands of the Who villagers. Because of this, when he finally gets around to stealing Christmas -- some eighty minutes into the film -- it’s clear that the Grinch’s actions are fully justified. The people of Whoville are, quite simply, despicable little bastards who deserve to be fed into a meat-grinder, so obsessed are they with commercialism, petty bickering, and the complete ostracizing of anyone who’s even the least bit different, including our dejected protagonist. These creeps have hurt the Grinch, and his desire to retaliate is entirely justified; indeed, these jerks deserve a lot more than the small amount of retribution he gives them.

It’s a fundamental shift in structure: in the book, the Whos teach the Grinch the true meaning of Christmas with their selfless attitude and insatiable desire to celebrate the holidays, regardless of the Grinch’s actions. Here, these same pious villagers torment a purely innocent creature, making him into the lonely outcast we see on the screen. I personally find it horrifying that the Grinch, the only creature brave enough to buck tradition, is painted as “evil” merely because he doesn’t share the beliefs held by the conservative townspeople. He’s the victim, and yet the story only rewards him when he conforms. Remember that lesson, boys and girls: you’re only a good person as long as you hold no opinions that challenge society’s status quo.

I hear you yelling at me. You’re frantically waving your arms, screaming that this version of the story must, by necessity, be at least somewhat different from the original tale. After all, Seuss’s book contains probably the same amount of text as this review, and certain things must therefore be altered in order to sustain a feature-length narrative. But the problem with the film’s reinvention of Seuss’s source material is not that things have been changed; it’s that things have been changed so carelessly that the story’s biggest joy -- its sense of unbridled innocence -- has been jeopardized. (“Honey, a baby’s here!” exclaims a delighted Who father after finding a small bundle on the front porch. “It looks exactly like your boss.”)

But even if his efforts to revamp and modernize How the Grinch Stole Christmas haven’t proven unilaterally successful, director Howard and his set designers have done a wondrous job of one-upping the good doctor’s book in one respect. The film boasts an exquisite visual style that plucks images from the depths of the imagination, with settings and locales that recall What Dreams May Come and the many brooding, gothic offerings from director Tim Burton. The visuals are so striking, in fact, that the movie just might be worth seeing for no other reason than to bask in the sheer spectacle of it all.

Nor are some of the new jokes without humor and wit. “I’m down a size and a half,” exclaims the Grinch after a self-administered heart exam. “And this time, I’ll keep it off!” But these types of gems are few and far between.

The new Grinch lacks the sprightly pacing that made the animated tale -- and the original book -- so much fun. The cinematic adaptation plods by, particularly in a much-too-long flashback, in documentary form, explaining the Grinch’s personal history. The whole sequence feels about as sincere as a typical episode of Access Hollywood. And, really, would Dr. Seuss have approved of a Grinch remake that incorporates cheap gags involving dog anuses, inexplicable animal attacks, and face-first dives into bountiful cleavage among its many “jokes?” Somehow, I think not. The final nail in the coffin is the fact that How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which is supposedly a story about the danger of materialism during the holiday season, is one of the most merchandised films in recent memory. Grinch toys line the shelves of every retail store, and the sheer hypocrisy of it all is enough to make the most devout fan let loose with a barrage of “Bah, Humbugs!” I respect what Howard and his crew tried to do with this adaptation, but, well intentioned or not, the movie simply doesn’t work. They may have tried to put the film’s heart in the right place, but alas, it’s still two sizes too small.

Directed by:
Ron Howard

Jim Carrey
Taylor Momsen
Clint Howard
Jeffrey Tambor
Josh Ryan Evans
and the voice of
Anthony Hopkins

Written by:
Jeffrey Price 
Peter S. Seamani

Based on the 
book by
Dr. Seuss




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