Making a feature-length film of a 50-page children’s classic could have been a risky business, but Ron Howard’s Dr. Suess’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas is a whopping success. Credit Jim Carrey, who had to endure heavy makeup and prosthetics, a hairy green bodysuit, and yellow contact lenses for his virtuoso portrayal of the infamous curmudgeon. It’s the perfect role for Carrey’s unique brand of physical humor and clever asides. (I kept wondering how many of those were improvised). This Grinch is even better than Chuck Jones’ 26-minute TV cartoon. Deliciously off-kilter, it could easily become a holiday classic in its own right.
The sets and costumes are pure whimsy, like something straight out of a candy factory created in Disneyland. The lavishly fanciful sets mix together as many architectural styles as any theme park does. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Universal Studios add Whoville and a Grinch sleigh ride to its list of amusement park attractions. Makeup artists gave all those Whos from Whoville the same noses Dr. Suess drew on them in his book. Wigs and hairdressers gave the cast the same loopy hairstyles as the 1957 book, and clad them in a 1950s-style wardrobe that would make the Ever Ready battery family drool. The screenwriters have taken some liberties by embellishing the Suess story. They had to stretch it to 94 minutes, after all. The heart of the book remains pretty much intact, with Anthony Hopkins providing the voice for Suess’ rhyming prose.
Best of all, to anyone cynical about Christmas and rapacious consumerism, Howard’s spirited film will come as pure balm. I always liked the Grinch. Of course, as a kid I didn’t relate my fondness for him to his disdain of commerce. I simply appreciated his refusal to conform to holiday expectations. Christmas was always highly overrated as far as I was concerned. The Grinch’s answer to Cindy Lou’s question about what Christmas is really about, “Presents, I suppose” rang true long before the Voluntary Simplicity movement gained a foothold. Ron Howard’s film grabs the anti-consumerism theme and runs with it. As the film opens, hordes of Whos are in a shopping frenzy, buying up everything in sight. “This,” proclaims Cindy Lou Who’s father, “is what Christmas is all about. Don’t you feel it?” But the disillusioned young Cindy Lou thinks spending is “superfluous.”
Given the mindless spending going on in Whoville, the Grinch seems justified in destroying the Whovian fantasy. He steals into town, delights in prank phone calls, mixes up the mail and begins to subvert the capitalist machine. When he saves sweet little Cindy Lou from the packing machine, she becomes convinced that the feared and loathsome Grinch is not so bad and decides to rescue him from his own nastiness. In the process, they both discover the real meaning of Christmas, which anyone who’s read the book knows. The real fun here is what happens in between.
Christine Baranski vamps it up as a newly created character, Martha Whovier, Whoville’s arbiter of taste and unappointed Queen of Color Coordination. Her Christmas lights are the best in town, thanks to a special staple-gun machine that spits them into place, putting the decorating attempts of Cindy Lou’s mother (a surprisingly subdued Molly Shannon) to shame. As a girl, Martha had a bit of a childhood crush on the hairy young Grinch. That’s right, Howard’s film gives Mr. Mean One motivation in the form of a traumatic childhood Christmas incident.
The Grinch, we learn, is shunned by the people of Whoville for being different, not only in Christmas philosophy but in color. When a Whoville taxi passes him by, he shrugs, “It’s because I’m green, isn’t it?”
There are plenty of contemporary satiric touches thrown in, mostly in Carrey’s asides. “One man’s toxic sludge is another man’s potpourri,” he says, looking through the garbage. “It’s amazing what those Whos throw away.” This Grinch also has an answering machine in his hilltop lair, which he shares with his echo and the cute little Max the Dog. His answering machine message: “If you utter so much as a syllable, I’ll hunt you down like a fish. If you’d like to fax me press the star key.”
When Cindy Lou invites him to the Whobilation, he has to first check his day-timer to see if he can fit it in between appointments to “Wallow in Self-Pity, Stare at the Abyss, Wrestle with my Self-Loathing, Slip Slowly into Madness.”
The Grinch accepts Cindy Lou’s invitation only to wreak havoc. He then fashions his own hand-made sleigh and dons a Santa suit to steal all the Whos’ presents. “It’s all about gifts,” he chides them. “Well, your gifts all come to me in the garbage. The avarice never ends.” What he really wants to defeat is the glitter of commercialism and the hypocrisy of Christmas cheer that is an excuse for excess.
The Whos, of course, come to see the light—even Cindy’s dad, who admits, “It’s not about gifts and fancy lights. Christmas doesn’t come from a store.” It’s certainly a valuable message, and one that will hopefully sink in with all the kiddies who are the film’s target. But then, these are the same kiddies the studios hope will buy movie-related merchandise. So in the end, Howard’s film may be as hypocritical as the Whos. And all those little toys, lunch pails and doodads will end up exactly where the Whos’ Christmas loot did—in the garbage.
Dr. Suess’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas (PG) HHH1/2 Directed by Ron Howard. Starring Jim Carrey, Christine Baranski and Taylor Momsen.