Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sh!#ting on the Classics: Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Stink. Stank. Stunk.

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

 “All filmgoers in America liked Jim Carrey a lot
But JB, down, down in his basement, did NOT…”

Theodore Geisel famously refused to sell the movie rights to his How The Grinch Stole Christmas, claiming no one could do better than the 1966 Chuck Jones animated television special. He was right.  What possessed his widow to go against his wishes and sell the property to Universal Pictures is a mystery, but I am guessing it had something to do with Grinch-green cash.

This is one of the worst films I have ever seen. From the evidence on the screen, the filmmakers set out to make the holiday film with the least whimsy, the least wonder, the least hilarity, and the least joy.  This is the big, expensive gift that breaks the minute you get it out of the box. This is a banana with a (sing it with me) greasy black peel.

Because the original book contains fewer than 500 words, and the animated version is less than 30 minutes long, the film is padded with backstory, subplot, and musical numbers. The book is about the Grinch; this movie is about Jim Carrey playing the Grinch. In the delightful animated short, even Boris Karloff has the sense to let Thurl Ravenscroft sing “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch.” Between his basso profundo voice and the intricate Dr. Seuss-penned lyrics, it is a transcendent moment in children’s entertainment. In the misbegotten live-action film, attention whore Jim Carrey sings the song BY himself, TO himself, courtesy of a full-length mirror, the only object that can look upon a Jim Carrey performance without reaction or comment.

Proof that the back-stories and subplots are wholly unnecessary? They stop dead at the 55-minute mark, and the rest of the movie is the book that we all paid to see. That’s a lot of padding. Imagine a tumor hanging off a beloved uncle, only the tumor is twice the size of the man. It seems to take years for the live-action Grinch to get down to the serious business of trying to steal Christmas.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Maybe I missed all the good parts: I fell asleep. Twice.

Much money and time went into making this film look like a cartoon. Why? Like recent efforts to make computer-animated films look like reality, what we end up with is an “Ur reality” that is disturbingly different from our own. I am not against stylization, but if filmmakers are going to spend this much money and fall this short, why not just make a goddamned cartoon?

 Because then Jim Carrey would not get to play dress-up.

The production design and set decoration are crowded and ugly. Whoville bears a disturbing similarity to Ape City in the original Planet of the Apes – all fake rock, skewed perspective, irregular windows, and overhead walkways – only painted in garish pastels.

For some time after the film was completed, Universal Studios left the sets standing, right in the shadow of the Bates house from Psycho, as a tourist attraction on their famous studio tour. My family happened to see them during a California vacation. Like most abandoned film sets, they looked incomplete and a little sad, like the parade had passed them by.  I wondered how they looked all gussied up for the camera.

They looked exactly the same. I successfully avoided this film for a decade (the original animated special holds a very special place in my heart), but when I finally caught it last weekend, I was surprised by how much the sets on screen looked like those sad, abandoned structures I gawked at in the summer of 2001.

The stylization of the makeup is similarly perverse. Although I give kudos to Rick Baker (Monster Maker) for attempting to turn Jim Carey’s visage into that of the famous cartoon character, everyone in the film winds up looking like some sort of creepy dog. In the book, the Grinch looks like a hairy, mean scarecrow; in the movie he looks like what would happen if Goofy fucked Oscar the Grouch.  The Whos in the book are cute little bugs (Cindy Lou Who has antennae!) but in the movie, the inspiration is clearly canine. Which performers receive the “Full-On Who” treatment and which performers escape it is also an interesting question to ponder. Jeffrey Tambor is almost unrecognizable under pounds of makeup and prosthetics, as are Bill Irwin and Molly Shannon. Little Taylor Momson’s face is left untouched; were the filmmakers afraid of featuring a grotesque child-thing at the center of their film, or would child-labor laws have made a daily three-hour makeup regime too expensive? Christine Baranski looks like she merely had bad plastic surgery. Clint Howard actually looks better in the Who makeup.

Jim Carey’s performance is clearly the raison-goddamn-d’etre of this thing – and what a performance it is. This is the most over-the-top performance I have ever seen: He shouts, he screams, he sings, he grimaces, he prances, he dances, he minces, he bellows, he belches – but he never whispers. This is a performance in ALL CAPS. If Jim Carey gave this performance on the side of a major highway, shouting to the cars as they passed by, he would be arrested as an escaped paranoid schizophrenic. I have never been a fan of Jim Carey’s patented “spastic in a windstorm” antics, but this performance takes the cake…not to mention the last can of Who Hash.

Other inexplicable elements abound. At one point, addressing the Whos from their town square, the Grinch uses a piece of mistletoe to invite the assembled crowd to kiss his ass. Later, in a flashback, a Baby Grinch witnesses Who holiday festivities: the Who-hostess is collecting the men’s car keys in a large bowl for what is obviously a wife-swapping party. I thought this was a children’s film.

In fact, this is the second highest grossing Christmas film of all time: a cynical and empty exercise that grossed $250 million worldwide, and that actually purports to decry the commercialization of Christmas.

Wait! What is that I hear? Is it the sound of the assembled Whos, joyfully singing “Fah who foraze! Dah who doraze!” in the beloved cartoon?

Why, no! It is the sound of Dr. Seuss, spinning in his grave.

But the strangest change of all comes when we are shown that the Grinch, from a very young age, had tremendous strength. In another flashback, the teenage Grinch hoists an enormous Christmas tree and lobs it through a plate glass window. Uh-oh.

In their wrong-headed and unnecessary attempts to provide the Grinch with a backstory, the screenwriters have negated the climax of the work. They seem to want a literal and rational explanation for how the Grinch is able to save the over-burdened sleigh at the climax of the film. Silly, sentimental me. I thought it was a miracle: when the Grinch realized “Christmas does not come from a store, that perhaps, just perhaps, it was a little bit more,” his heart grew ten sizes (plus two!), he was able to lift that impossible sleigh and save the day. The Grinch was filled with the power of the true spirit of Christmas!

“No,” this cynical and sickening film answers, “he was always just strong.
The end.  Go home.  You want a Grinch doll with that? Ten bucks.”

BETTER YET: Buy the book. Read it to your kids. Do the funny voices – they like that. Give your kids a hug. Merry Christmas.

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