By Jeff Westover
Three words: stink, stank, stunk.
The sick irony in quoting Dr. Seuss to review the newest version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas is that there may not be a better or more accurate description for this movie.
The new live-action movie tells the story of how the Grinch came to be and why he hates the Who's down in Whoville -- and Christmas -- so much. To accomplish this, the screenwriters turned to the classic Disney formula of placing the Grinch in a dysfunctional family. He may as well have been plucked from the same orphanage as the Little Mermaid, Snow White and Aladdin. As it is, the Baby Grinch looks far too much like a Chucky doll for my tastes and proves to be almost as big a nightmare.
What the filmmakers fail to realize is that they are telling the audience a story they already know. While the audience wants to be surprised it does not want sacred ground disturbed. Director Ron Howard not only churns the sacred soil --- he puts a shopping mall on it.
The Who's down in Whoville, set in our sacred ground as a whimsical and sentimental people, turn out in this movie to be shallow and mean-spirited. Their world -- as we understand it, straight from the pages of the children's book -- is one that is filled with good cheer and unpredictable delight. Howard's movie Who's are nothing more than empty headed humans at their very worst.
In fact, the only two characters with any brains or sensibilities at all seem to be Cindy Lou and Max, the Grinch's dog. But for all the faults of the cast and the shortcomings of how the Who's are depicted, the real disappointment comes from the Grinch himself.
Jim Carrey dons the green again and this time he's not inventing a character he's messing with a beloved icon. Viewers have expectations of their icons. Carrey falls all over himself to meet those expectations but fails for one simple reason:
He can't act.
The reviews I'm reading are all saying that Carrey is "brilliant" or even "exceptional" even if the film overall gets low marks. Sorry, Jimmy it just ain't so. If there is anything this movie proves it's that Carrey might do a great job in wearing make up but all he really accomplishes is making the Grinch act like Jim Carrey.
What made the animated Grinch so endearing were the things he didn't say, the expressions he wore and the great internal change that transformed him before our eyes. Carrey's Grinch had none of that.
He attacked the role full force and never let up. There were no subtle nuances. There was no guessing the depths of his frustration or his hurt. It was pedal to the metal, manic and obsessed with heartless energy. When it came time to change, the Carrey Grinch became cynical. That's not acting. That's merely being a buffoon.
In the end, there was no transformation in the Grinch from Carrey. The story overall was essentially true to the animated tale, as we all expected, but Carrey's Grinch never ended the movie. He turned out to be the same vulgar, wise-cracking chowder head that Carrey played him to be at the very beginning of the movie.
Carrey tends to get sympathetic headlines for the lack of recognition his "acting" receives. But this movie justifies the lack of attention. He's simply not Robin Williams, although he appears to want to be considered in the same breath.
There were daunting challenges all around in taking on Dr. Seuss too. His dialogue has a rhythmic flavor and his characters possess an uncanny lack of symmetry and predictability. It would take not only talent in the lead but much more than makeup in support to tell the story well.
In addition, the filmmakers faced the opportunity to turn a half-hour television special into a full -blown movie. It was an opportunity simply because with characters written so richly by Dr. Seuss and a set so wide open, the creative sky was the limit. They literally could have done anything. Instead, these opportunities were cashed in for cynical stabs at holiday humor and spectacular, flashy and predictable special effects. In the end, we found they did make a full-blown movie: they blew it in nearly every respect.
Nearly but not totally.
The casting of Anthony Hopkins as the narrator was an inspired move. It's just too bad he was so under-utilized in telling the tale.
Likewise, the few rare moments where expectations are met occur when Howard plays the movie straight against the original. The musical number "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" worked and raised the expectation that maybe this movie was finally coming around. Sadly, these moments were rare in scene after scene of competing crescendo.
The attempts at re-creating the visual effects of an animated masterpiece were bound to disappoint too, in spite of all the technology that has proven so capable of inventing entire worlds in other films. The set makers did a capable job, although the Who world of the big screen felt small and enclosed.
But even those things could have been forgiven and forgotten if the movie had some sort of heart.
In previous modern-day attempts at remaking classic holiday tales few have done it right. But the makers of this movie could have taken a few lessons from the folks who made The Muppet Christmas Carol, a movie that does inspire traditional viewing each season. In that production, strident efforts were made to play it straight against the original story and then add flavor to it by mixing in the unique talents of the Muppets in a subtle way. Ron Howard and the merry crew on How the Grinch Stole Christmas got their formula completely backwards.
And that's what makes the pointless build-up, gratuitous cleavage and character mutilations so offensive in this movie. Christmas has a significance and a meaning to lovers of this story. And the makers of this film missed that mark entirely. To them, Christmas is but one big series of climaxes, one-liners and occasional explosions. A pause now and then to reflect, the sound of silence and pursuing the unique idea that sometimes less is more would have added a lot in making this a film worth seeing at all.
There is not a doubt in my mind that this movie will make hundreds of millions. Who knows? It may even set records. But the real test in the rarified air of holiday films is how well it will thrive over time. Mark my words the original will still be viewed ten years from now with nostalgic loyalty. This new version is bound for the "Top Shelf" bargains at Walmart and will be remembered with countless other holiday remakes that just couldn't pass the stink test.
Probably most interesting thing to me about this movie came from studying the reactions of those around me. I attended a packed theater with 18 members of my family from the age of 4 months to nearly sixty years old in attendance. When we got home my four-year old handed me our copy of the original movie and asked "Can we watch the Grinch now?"