The Grinch (2000)

D: Ron Howard
S: Jim Carrey, Taylor Momsen

The first live-action feature from the mind of children's writer Dr. Seuss since The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T is a triumph of production design, make-up, and costumes. It is also a perfect vehicle for its star, Jim Carrey, whose characteristic brand of physical humour, gesture, and vocal and facial contortion shine through the extensive furry costume and make-up he wears to transform him into one of Dr. Seuss' most famous characters. Based on the book How the Grinch Stole Christmas (previously turned into a delightful animated short), the story concerns the curmudgeonly title character, who lives alone and isolated on a mountain high above a village populated by a cheerful, Christmas-loving people called the Whos. Irked by their constant merrymaking, The Grinch decides to prove to them how hollow the festival of Christmas really is by depriving them of all the trappings of the occasion. The basic story has been embellished by screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, but it remains more or less faithful to its origins. The running time is padded, there are a couple of contemporary pop-culture asides and self-reflexive in-jokes, and in order to ensure children are not unduly traumatised by having to identify with Dr. Seuss' familiar unearthly surrealist characters (I have to admit that as a child they scared the hell out of me), the sweet little girl who tries to convince The Grinch to join the party (Taylor Momsen) is not made-over like the adults.

Director Ron Howard (Ransom) has made an obvious attempt to transgress into Tim Burton territory here with a surreal tale set in a distinctive visual universe in which the frames of reference are set by wild imagination and production design. He does a typically competent job of allowing his crew's hard work to provide the film with distinctive character. Derived from Dr. Seuss' illustrations, the look of the film is just about right, and the cast seem very much clued in to the spirit of the thing. Carrey, better than his material as always (Me, Myself & Irene, Liar, Liar), is great fun in the central role, and even handles the climactic transformation to a good-hearted character convincingly. The film is filled with imaginative elements and elaborate set pieces (including, of course, the 'stealing Christmas' sequence) which take place against eye-popping backdrops, sets, and props. Yet somehow Howard is still no Burton, and there is something a little too schematic about how all of this has been sutured together. It is fun, but it never really soars into the gleefully demented world of pure imagination into which it seems to hope it does. Even Burton's recent failures Mars Attacks! and Sleepy Hollow are more genuinely flamboyant. Howard has never been a cinematic visionary, and The Grinch is still very much a Ron Howard movie despite its visual trappings. It is solidly crafted and generally entertaining: vintage Hollywood workmanship. But it lacks the real vision even of the source material, and, despite its design elements, is all too literal to form part of the mainstream surrealist revival in recent American Cinema (Being John Malkovich, American Beauty, Fight Club).

That said, The Grinch is perfect seasonal entertainment which is bound to become one of the staples of future television programming alongside the likes of The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It is not nearly as good as either of those films, but neither is it as sickly sentimental or contrived as many films or programmes produced especially for this time of the year. Carrey fans should enjoy his usual capering, Dr. Seuss fans will probably enjoy seeing just how things have been done here and watching out for the in-jokes, kids will probably respond to the colourful sets and designs, the story is strong enough to hold its own even with the tinkering and expansion by the screenwriters (a sub-plot about Grinch's childhood actually works reasonably well despite being ill-advised in theory), so on the whole The Grinch is worth a look. On the other hand one does find oneself longing to really be swept away by the film and its imaginative world, and when that never happens, there can't but be just a little disappointment.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.