What did Dr. Seuss ever do to Hollywood? How did the genial children’s author, responsible for many of the most memorable kid lit classics of all time turn into such a cinematic pariah? Granted, last year’s Horton Hears a Who was a wonderful CG miracle, an update of the favored tale that added just the right amount of contemporary comedy zing. But sadly, such an accomplishment remains a real rarity when it comes to adaptations of Theodor Geisel’s works. In 2003, Mike Myers urinated all over the memory of Thing One and Thing Two with his horrific hackneyed take on The Cat in the Hat. But the whole anti-Seuss vibe probably started when a then hot Jim Carrey soiled the stellar reputation of Chuck Jones and Boris Karloff when he turned How The Grinch Stole Christmas into a distressing example of star hubris excess.
By now, everyone knows the story of how a mean old monster with a hatred for the holiday season tried to steal the celebration away from the Whos down in Whoville. As with any good fable, the Grinch has a last minute change of heart, recognizes the reason for the season, and saves the day. This updated version has a terribly trite backstory which sees the character, now a decidedly freakish member of the Who clan, pining away for a cutesy classmate, later played by Christine Baranski. When he is ridiculed by his peers, he turns into a meanie, makes his way up Mt. Crumpit, and becomes the city’s resident urban legend. When little Cindy Lou Who decides to nominate the myth for a festive Yuletide award, the town balks, including the Mayor played by Jeffrey Tambor. When the Grinch accepts, and is mocked again, he decides to teach the Whos a lesson once and for all. So it’s on with the familiar Santa suit, off with the village’s many merry Noel trappings.
Someone should have stopped director Ron Howard when they had the chance. You can tell he thinks he’s making the most magical, spirited seasonal masterwork ever conceived. His intentions are so obvious, his frame so overfilled with as many eye candy confections as possible, that claims of excess become understatements. Indeed, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is so big, so bloated with unnecessary red and green froufrou, that Seuss seminal message gets lost - nay, trampled on, tossed aside, and treated like an afterthought. Even more overly complicated thanks to the new Blu-ray version from Unviersal, this hallucinogenic horror is half ego trip, half toddler night terror fodder. Between the Whos who look like shaved mice (take that, Rick Baker’s undeserved Oscar for Best Make-up) to the dogged Disney-like art design (no straight edges or recognizable geometrical shapes in this chaotic creative hodgepodge), we are treated to a craven cake overflowing with too much icing, too many nonpareils, and not enough sugar-less substance.
It’s not all the filmmaker’s fault. Howard casts his film with a group of likeminded movie minions who take the notion of fantasy to nauseating, nonsensical extremes. For every Bill Irwin, quite capable as the clown, we have Baranski, or the leaden Tambor who both believe that playing wistful requires a combination of the cloying and the creepy. It’s the same with Molly Shannon as Irwin’s wife and Clint Howard as Tambor’s Mayoral assistant. In fact, the Whos are so uninvolving and uninteresting that we could care less if their Christmas is ruined. We simply see their dilemma as part of Seuss story and wait for the plotpoint to payoff. Everything else here is narratively unnecessary. The grade-school Grinch sequence is painful in its pat psychobabble tone and the Baranski love interest is borderline sickening. Indeed, the whole concept of the Grinch is never given much clarity. If he’s not a Who, why is he treated as one? If he is, why is he the only odd looking member of the clan?
Of course, Carrey is no help. He’s his typical mid ‘90s scene stealing hog here, taking control of every moment to work through his various levels of adlib (in)efficiency. Sometimes, he scores. Most times, he misses by miles. His mountain retreat is part horror film, part theme park proposal, and his dog Max (turned into a live action cur) is less a silent Greek chorus and more canine comic relief. By the time the movie gets around to actually investing in Geisel’s moral, we’ve sat through endless shouting and shenanigans that fail to provide a single saleable laugh. Carrey is complete adrift here, doing his shtick without recognizing how ineffectual and inappropriate it is (should a children’s film really revel in shrill, softcore asides?). If the rest of the movie weren’t so distended, the former superstar would be the goiter giving How the Grinch Stole Christmas its swollen spirit.
The desire to pack in as much as possible is apparent throughout the bonus features included on the Blu-ray release. We are taken to Who School (?), shown the various details in the production and art design, witness the way in which Carrey constantly countermanded the script to exercise he proposed purposeful witticisms, and watch as the special effects give overkill a comfy new motion picture home. There are deleted scenes a’plenty (which is stunning, considering how crammed full the film already feels), a look at Baker’s make-up techniques, and a vile music video from Faith Hill. Perhaps the most telling piece of added content is the commentary by Howard. Ported over from previous DVD editions of the film, it offers no perspective on the critical consensus on the film. Instead, it plays like a pep talk, the filmmaker convincing himself over and over again that he made the right decision in turning Seuss’ legend into a spotty, slapdash spectacle.
Well, at the very least the image and sound get a much needed format update, the better to show off the senseless surplus within How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ vision. One of the worst elements of the revamp is turning buttinski urchin Cindy Lou into the voice of reason amongst a populace already clueless as to how to control themselves. Her arguments about sensing inner beauty and de-commercializing the date are so shrill, so saccharine in their cutesy pie approach, that you hope this Grinch grinds her bones to make his bread…or something like that. If you want to see what Dr. Seuss’s amazing message can look like when properly treated and translated, seek out the 1966 cartoon classic. The original celebrated the triumph of the individual spirit. This one is nothing more than a crass mainstream cash grab. Though the sentiment is apropos, the packaging is just awful.