The Misery and Merriment of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’

The worst thing a film critic can do is not give something a fair shake. Just like how you can never judge a book by its cover, it can be extremely unwise to come to a conclusion about a picture five minutes in. But all rules have exceptions, and this 2000 adaptation of the Dr. Seuss holiday book How The Grinch Stole Christmas is one of them.

The quick verdict? This movie should have been directed by Tim Burton, not Ron Howard, who does a passable job of synthesising the skewed view that permeates a Burton picture, but has little of his own to offer. Unfortunately this means that watching The Grinch turns into an experience not unlike seeing a really good cover band. Sure, it can be cheap fun and a lot easier to find parking, but you’re always left with the feeling that the real thing could’ve been so much better. The only thing memorable about this film is an excellent performance by Jim Carrey, and the make-up work of Rick Baker.

A quick run down of the story for those who live under a lump of coal: The Grinch lives out of  Mount Crumpit, a sort of Batcave for the grumpy, that overlooks the peaceful town Whoville. The residents (called “Whos”) are so festive about Christmas that they probably have IV candy canes permanently hooked up.

The Grinch occasionally goes to town for the purposes of raising hell: messing with people’s bikes, unleashing his bad breath on others, or even just walking around murmuring his hatred for the holidays. While mixing around everyone’s mail, he rescues young Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen, later of the rock band The Pretty Reckless) from being crushed in a machine, which touches the girl’s heart. If he was capable of saving her life, why can’t kindness be found in him?

So Cindy goes on an investigative hunt, like some seven-year-old version of Carl Bernstein. All the traditional questions about the monster are asked. Where did he come from? Why does he hate Christmas so much? And what’s with the hair that makes him look like a green orangutan? (Disclaimer: not all of these questions are answered). Cindy persuades the town to give the Grinch the Cheermeister of the Year Award during the Christmas festival Whobiliation, which brings this furry fiend on a collision course with a group of people that don’t accept him.

The original book was only 69 pages, all of them with illustrations bigger than the text. In other words, this source material doesn’t provide much fodder for a film. It’s a similar dilemma that Universal ran into four years later when they tried to get audiences to buy Mike Myers as The Cat in the Hat.

So screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman throw in details that are the definition of filler. The whole first half of this movie was basically invented to keep the end product from being a mere 60 minutes long.  To put it another way: the famous Grinch Song doesn’t appear until an hour into the movie. However, I can respect the idea of not blowing your cinematic wad, and the backstory is vaguely interesting to follow, even though I felt it was just passing time.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas was made at a time when Jim Carrey could go crazy on-screen for two hours and audiences would line-up in droves for it. I don’t know what caused the actor to descend into a hell of strange comments and legal hell, but he’s terrific here. The performance is a living embodiment of a cartoon, but never feels so over-the-top that it begins to grate. Carrey is one of the most charismatic actors of all time, and his talent is on full display here.

An adaptation of a classic book like this, one that doesn’t quite have enough to make a full film, needed a director to put his stamp on the screen. But Howard is the last man on Earth (or Whoville) for that, and what we’re left with is a by-the-book telling that’s almost as disposable as a Hallmark holiday movie. Or that present from Grandma that you didn’t want.