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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".

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