How The Fun Was Stolen From "The Grinch"
by Jason Comerford
Ron Howard's new film version of the Dr. Seuss children's tale "How
the Grinch Stole Christmas" has suffered the inevitable comparisons to
the cartoon version produced for television in the 1960s. Usually, comparing
different versions of the same source material is like apples and oranges,
but unfortunately, as with Howard's new film, the comparison is the only
thing to go on. Howard is an incredibly versatile, chameleonic director,
one whose talents are far too often underappreciated. Witness the roaming
kineticism he brought to Ransom, and compare it with the incisively
straightforward, documentarian approach he took with Apollo 13;
more than most directors working today, Howard understands the rules of
the medium and knows exactly how to make good storytelling pulse with energy.
Howard was even able to bring an infectiously loose and amiable tone to
the silly EdTV; the sheer confidence of the storytelling wins you
over more than the story itself. Unfortunately with How the Grinch Stole
Christmas, Howard seems to be lost in a sea of production design and
visual effects, relying on Donald Peterman's twisting, corkscrewing camerawork
to juice up a script with serious problems with tone and characterization.
There's plenty of color and motion and gags, but there's no weight to anything
-- it all just flashes past you, 100 minutes of elaborate self-promotion.
The Grinch is one of the great antiheroes of children's literature,
and the sly dexterity Theodore Geisel employed to turn this prickly sourpuss
into a loveable curmudgeon has deservedly become a permanent fixture to
children's literature. The challenge, then, is to inflate the trim story
that Geisel set forth. Jeffery Price and Peter Seaman previously penned
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and it's clear that their strengths still
lie in gimmickry rather than good craftsmanship; their screenplay for Grinch
trots out a half-dozen clever ideas then never follows through with them.
Instead the script opts to provide us with a solid hour of slapdash backstory
on the title character, envisioning him as a hairy green-skinned outsider
in a community full of the button-nosed Whos and following him through
the obligatory heartbreak provided by Martha May Whovier, the object d'amour
of Whoville's mayor-to-be. It's an intriguing conceit, to explore the dark
undercurrents of Geisel's spiky rhythms and add elements of racism and
neglect, but the script cops out just when it's getting somewhere. There
are plenty of Seussian characters running around, but despite elaborate
costuming and makeup jobs, no one really sticks with you.
Much ink has been spilled by us critics about Jim Carrey being unrecognizable
underneath his elaborate Grinch makeup job; ideally, it shouldn't matter
-- the strength of the performance should -- but Carrey seems bound and
determined to remind audiences every five minutes that Ace Ventura hasn't
died yet. Carrey delivered a technically brilliant performance in Milos
Forman's underrated Man on the Moon by, quite literally, becoming
the oddball comic Andy Kaufman; by the end of that film you said, "Ace
who?" As the Grinch, Carrey is full of quips and antics, enough to please
his fans, but the performance itself is sloppy and unfocused, a comedian's
eagerness to please overcoming the performer's duty to become the character.
One can't fault Carrey entirely, however, given the material he has to
work with, but when you're focusing on the makeup job more than you are
the character, there's something terribly wrong. On the other end of the
spectrum, the normally reliable Jeffery Tambor, as the mayor of Whoville,
is too glum for the frenetic, cartoony style that Howard sets forth. Christine
Baranski, as Martha May, gets a couple of moments to let her self-mockingly
theatrical style poke through, but even her reliably entertaining onscreen
personality gets swallowed up by the movie's end.
Indeed, the message of the original tale -- that Christmas is best enjoyed
without ornamentations -- seems to have been completely forgotten. So much
razzle-dazzle is on display in Howard's film that it seems to be a commercial
for itself rather than the satire that it could have been. Seuss' original
tale worked on that fundamental idea; the film, on the other hand, presents
that idea as a joke that's quickly tossed away, one of many. Even the more
intriguing subthemes that could have been explored are discarded, leaving
the story with practically no dramatic momentum, just an impatience on
the part of the audience for the Grinch's heart to get bigger, already.
James Horner wisely adopted to include some of the music from the original
television version of the story, but even those songs serve to remind you
how good enough should have been left alone. Horner's contribution to the
movie is mostly buried in the final mix (at least, based on the drabby
print I saw). The score is about what you'd expect; Casper, Christmas-style,
with plenty of "wacky" percussion effects scoring the Grinch's antics and
a nice melody for Cindy Lou Who taking prominence in a newly-penned song,
"Where Are You Christmas?" (There's even a song with music by Horner and
lyrics co-penned by Mariah Carey!) But given the unfocused mess that the
film is, it's really no wonder that the music fades into the background
for the majority of the time. The album, which I understand is a mess of
sequencing and overlaid dialogue snippets, has a bunch of Christmas songs
unused in the movie; in hindsight, any of them could have been used, because
it really wouldn't have made much difference.
Oh, well. Let's just hope that Brian Grazer doesn't screw up "The Cat
in the Hat".