Ever been called a “grinch”? It likely happened when you complained about the shopping and the crowds and the advertising and the decorations that go up in store windows before Thanksgiving. Bitch about commercialism, get called a grinch. Which is precisely contrary to the spirit of Dr. Seuss’s book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and the beloved 1965 animated TV special it spawned. The Grinch hated the joy and the happiness and togetherness of the citizens of Whoville at Christmastime, and eventually learned that none of that sprung from presents or decorations, but from the heart.
But those who insist on misconstruing the Grinch will certainly be delighted with Ron Howard’s new live-action adaptation, because it subverts Dr. Seuss’s point in exactly the same way. And the result is a bizarre and uncomfortable film.
How do you extend a 26-minute short into a 90-minute film? The kindly, happy Whos can go, for a start — where’s the drama in niceness? Shopping like maniacs in the final days before Christmas, they’re in such a hurry that they throw bills and coins at busy cash registers, and they’re so stuff-addled that they rush in like mad when a store owner steps out into the street to announce, “For the next five minutes only, 99 percent off!” Would the Whoville post office deliberately crush packages marked “fragile”? Would two Who-ladies, Martha May Whovier (Christine Baranski: Bowfinger, Bulworth) and Betty Lou Who (Molly Shannon: Analyze This), find themselves in an annual competition for the most spectacularly, outrageously decorated house? This is not the spirit of Whoville, but this is what we have here.
Oh, but cute little Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen) knows Christmas should not be like this. And out of the mouths of babes a little child shall lead them, blah blah blah. Cindy finds an unlikely comrade in arms in, yes, the Grinch (Jim Carrey: Simon Birch, The Truman Show), who rants and raves, during his trips into town, about all the discarded tacky presents that end up on Mount Crumpit — his home, Whoville’s garbage dump — the day after Christmas, about the useless, expensive gifts the Whos give one another. The Grinch may be a disgusting slob who feels the need to prove himself smarter than his dog Max, but if his heart is “two sizes too small,” then it still must be a size bigger that those of the Whos.
But the Whos get even worse. More padding comes in the form of the Grinch’s backstory — why is he so nasty, anyway? — but Howard (EDTV, Apollo 13) and screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman can’t seem to make up their minds. Born on Christmas Eve in the manner of all Who babies, carried in on the wind, though of course this particular night it was “a strange wind,” the baby Grinch is ignored at first because the fine people of Whoville are busy at, yes, a holiday wife-swap and general bacchanalia. But the Grinch is eventually adopted by two kindly women who appear to love him, even though he is a bitter and evil little tyke from the get-go, a grinchling who hates Christmas innately (his childhood drawings depict violent ends for Santa Claus). Okay, fine: the Grinch is simply genetically predisposed to be a miserable bastard. But the filmmakers can’t leave well enough alone — they have to concoct a scenario in which cruel, stupid Who children spoil the Grinch’s one attempt to enjoy the season. It’s enough to drive the eight-year-old Grinch to leave Whoville and remove himself to Mount Crumpit forever.
The scene in which the young Grinch (Josh Ryan Evans), in his cheerful school uniform, climbs the snowy mountain, all alone and obviously forgotten, is indescribably disturbing. Did neither of his adoptive mothers come looking for him? Did no adult Who give a crap where he was? A very small girl sitting behind me at the screening I attended was also upset at this, and asked her father, tremulously, “Where’s his daddy?” I felt for her. These Whos are horrible people.
The Grinch, does, of course, still go through with his “wonderful, awful idea” to steal Christmas, and it should have actually worked this time, because all the avaricious, materialistic Whos seem to care about is their stuff. So then why would the Whos, suddenly and without any indication of such inclination, realize that “maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store, maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more”? And why would “the Grinch’s heart [grow] three sizes” when he already knew that Christmas wasn’t about presents? Used to be, the citizens of Whoville taught the Grinch what Christmas was all about — now, it’s the Grinch doling out the lesson. And that’s the perversion of this film in a nutshell.
The Grinch is the most — nay, the only — sympathetic character in the film, and that’s down not only to the weird twisting of the story but Jim Carrey as well. Even through a makeup job that must have been hellish to endure and despite Carrey’s typically cartoonish antics, his Grinch has soul. As he flips through the Whoville phone book hating Whos alphabetically, his loneliness is searing.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas should have and could have been uncanny and disquieting in a Tim Burton way, leaving you feeling unsettled at human cruelty, but instead it candy-coats the petty, everyday awfulness of human beings. The dazzling, frenetic production design — an invented world full of curlicues, lacking right angles, and crammed with detail — dresses up the appalling behavior of the Whos, aiming to make us laugh with them. The original animated Grinch always creeped me out, just a little bit, and rightly so: its focus was on the Grinch himself, and the cold-heartedness that made him what he was. But this Grinch creeps me out for all the wrong reasons. The focus here is on the cold-hearted Whos, and we’re not supposed to notice.