"Doesn't this all seem superfluous?"
Early in Ron Howard’s much anticipated live-action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, while all of Who-ville is a-bustle with holiday shopping fever, Little Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen), the voice of Christmas Reason, faces a moral dilemma. Surely there must be more to Christmas than the crass commercialism demonstrated by the Whos, and she asks her father Lou Lou Who (Bill Irwin), “Doesn’t this all seem superfluous?” Of course, anyone familiar with Dr. Seuss’ original book or the television cartoon-special of the same name knows that the moral of the story is precisely that Christmas is not just about costly presents and the conspicuous display of wealth, but about “peace on earth, good will toward man,” and all that hoo-ha (or, who-ha). But in this film version, the cautionary fable is ratcheted up to the level of diatribe, and we are continually beaten over the head with the shallow consumerism of Who-ville. Bad Whos! Spoiling Christmas by turning it into a fancy decorative light contest or some modified Inuit potlatch ceremony.
The obvious irony is that Howard’s film contributes to the same commodification of the holidays it tries so desperately to criticize. At the sneak preview I attended, goodie-bags were handed out which included an official How the Grinch Stole Christmas action figure. Mine was “Lederhosen Grinch & Max the Dog, with Who Long Bike.” Clearly, Christmas is about much more than gifts and spending money, provided, of course, you buy the requisite amount of Grinch-related items.
Nevertheless, amidst all these greedy Whos, Little Cindy Lou alone remembers the “true meaning” of Christmas. She reasons that the mythic Grinch, living in isolation up on Mt. Crumpit, must be a sympathetic soul. Accordingly, she seeks out the chain of events that led to his transformation into the Seussian Ebeneezer Scrooge. Does this sound like How the Grinch Stole Christmas as you know it? Well, it isn’t, and this is a major frustration. What makes Dr. Seuss’ original story so successful is that it deals in archetypes that make moral distinctions easy to see, gives direct ethical injunctions, and offers the possibility of the good in everyone, even the Grinch. In Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman’s screenplay, the critique of consumerism is overwrought, the distinctions between good and bad/evil are muddied, and the Grinch himself becomes just another product of pop psychobabble. Where in the earlier versions, Little Cindy Lou was barely past infancy, and her blinky-eyed belief in the Grinch as Santa stood as a representation of trusting innocence, in this How the Grinch Stole Christmas, she’s more a representative of sanctimonious piety, as she single-handedly makes it her mission to redeem the Grinch from his grouchy life. Far from embodying perfect wholesomeness, here Little Cindy Lou is more like Harriet the Spy or Ramona the Pest.
The story of the Grinch that Little Cindy Lou discovers unfolds like an episode of Growing Pains. Many Christmases ago, in the midst of their holiday key-party (one of the film’s many nudges to a parental audience that the kiddies will no doubt speed right over), two spinster sisters are graced with an unusually aggressive and unusually green baby. As he grows up, it is obvious to everyone that the Grinch is “different.” Who-kids being who-kids, one fateful holiday season, after the young Martha Who-vier (played as an adult by Christine Baranski) has shown some interest in the bad-boy, the future mayor of Who-ville, May Who (Jeffrey Tambor), humiliates the Grinch in front of the entire school, driving him into hiding in his mountain cave.
The final face-off for the Mayor, the Grinch, and Martha is inevitable for the Grinch’s redemption. Unlike the original story, in which the Grinch is transformed by the townspeople’s display of generosity, following his thievery, in this film his redemption is entirely orchestrated by Little Cindy Lou. While the film gets the basic “meaning of Christmas” across, it also assumes the basic badness of everyone (whether Grinchy bad temper, or Who-ey avarice). This is a major divergence from Seuss’s story. In addition to being preachy and hypocritical about commercialism, Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas is largely pessimistic, using Little Cindy Lou Who to point out the essential shortcomings of who-manity. Such a heavy burden for tiny Who shoulders to bear.
The movie is more effective in reinterpreting the Seuss story when it highlights what was in the original a rather veiled commentary on racism and intolerance. Seuss was, of course, notoriously lefty-leaning in his children’s books (The Bitter Butter Battle and The Lorax being the most obvious examples of his political and social agenda). And what sets the Grinch apart from the Whos, other than his demeanor, is the color of his skin. In Howard’s film, this distinction is taken to its logical and visual limits. As Who-ville exists within the depths of a single snowflake (microcosm, get it?), the wintry town is impossibly white, as are the Whos themselves, with their snowy smooth skin, and pert upturned WASP-y noses. The Grinch, on the other hand, is hairy and green. And smartly, the Grinch’s difference is set up early in terms that evoke racist stereotypes and epithets. Discussing the Grinch in public, after Little Cindy Lou’s persistent questions about “who” he is, the Mayor declares that the Grinch is “not a who, he is a what.” Of course this sets him apart from the citizens of Who-ville he is not a Who.
More directly, the Grinch is not a who, he has no identity, no name, no family or community, he is a what. The Grinch falls into a distinctly subhuman category, equivalent in Who hierarchies to racist categorizations of “monkeys,” “wetbacks,” and “gooks.” In one scene, as the Grinch wreaks havoc on Who-ville, he pretends to hail a taxi as it speeds past him, and he yells after it, “It’s because I’m green, isn’t it?!” Yep. In updating its moral lesson in this way, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is pleasantly surprising. While, at least in the U.S., we might have lost faith in the essential goodness of humanity pronounced by Seuss’s story, we still give plenty of lip service to tolerance and respect for cultural diversity as proper moral goals. And so, the film’s commentary on racism and intolerance seems perfectly appropriate to today.
Nevertheless, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is still trite, rather boring, and generally overdone (visually and moralistically and the Grinch is most definitely over-acted by Jim Carrey, no surprise). The jokes are stale and often totally inappropriate for the children who will likely make up most of the audience (as when the Grinch makes the sleeping Mayor literally kiss his dog Max’s asshole, and we watch Max’s eyes widen in surprise). In the end, I am left feeling not just a little bit like Little Cindy Lou, and wonder if How the Grinch Stole Christmas isn’t just entirely superfluous.