How the Grinch Stole Christmas (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For more than three decades, How the Grinch Stole Christmas has been a holiday season television staple. The 22-minute cartoon, based on the book by Dr. Seuss and narrated by Boris Karloff, has enchanted multiple generations of children (not to mention adults), and, even with its ready availability on video, it still draws a sizable viewing audience every time it is broadcast. With the possible exception of the Peanuts Christmas Special, no other seasonal program is as beloved and respected as this venerable classic. So, in deciding to transform it into a 90-minute, live action motion picture, director Ron Howard has taken a sizable risk. There are undoubtedly those who will view the movie as a sacrilege of the most heinous kind.

To Howard's credit, he has worked hard to keep the spirit of the animated Grinch intact. The text of the Dr. Seuss book is in place, although a great deal has been added to pad out the running time. In addition, the songs from the TV show have also been incorporated into the film, although the movie version of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" could have used a little less livening up (the simple rendition in the cartoon is preferable). The bright, colorful set design impresses, effectively translating the happy hamlet of Whoville from the cartoon world to the fantasy-reality one. Of course, one might legitimately ask why, if so much attention was being paid to replicating the animated look and feel in a live action medium, this movie was deemed necessary in the first place. The answer, of course, is money - How the Grinch Stole Christmas is likely to make a lot of it. That doesn't mean it's a bad film - in fact, it's quite entertaining - but commercial, not creative or artistic, considerations have brought it to the screen.

The movie opens with nearly one hour of background material about the Grinch and Whoville that was not in either Seuss' book or the TV special. We learn all sorts of interesting tidbits designed to fill in supposed "holes" in Grinch lore (not that anyone really noticed). We come to understand why the Grinch hates Christmas (it has more to do with bad childhood experiences than with a heart that's two sizes too small), why he has it in for the Mayor of Whoville, and why Little Cindy Lou-Who finds his soft spot so easily. Finally, at about the film's two-thirds point, the narrative switches over to following the book letter-for-letter, and we get a strikingly faithful re-creation of the cartoon. There is a difference in tone between the two portions of the film - the part that follows the book is smoother, has considerably more narration, and consistently rhymes, while the remainder has a "tacked on" feel. Children, however, won't notice, and the shift isn't glaring enough that it will bother most adults - even those who have sat through the TV special countless times.

Of course, How the Grinch Stole Christmas' big selling point isn't nostalgia or great production values - it's Jim Carrey. Buried beneath Rick Baker's flexible makeup, he's a dead ringer for the cartoon creature, but, although he isn't physically recognizable, there's no doubt who's under all of the green latex and hair. Recently, Carrey has been working on developing a reputation as a serious actor, but, in concert with Me, Myself & Irene, How the Grinch Stole Christmas allows him to get back to the kind of antics that made him famous in the first place. His off-the-wall performance is reminiscent of what he accomplished in The Mask, except that here he never allows the special effects to upstage him. Carrey's Grinch is a combination of Seuss' creation and Carrey's personality, with a voice that sounds far more like a weird amalgamation of Sean Connery and Jim Backus (Bond meets Magoo!) than it does Karloff.

The character to benefit the most from the fattened script is Little Cindy Lou-Who, played by charming newcomer Taylor Momsen. Cindy becomes the Grinch's advocate in Whoville, the only one who sees the goodness buried deep within. Like the three ghosts in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, she represents the catalyst that transforms the cold-hearted Grinch from a Scrooge into the holiday's biggest advocate and most devout celebrant. Momsen is wonderful in the part; she manages to be cute without being insufferable - a difficult task for a young actress who probably got the job because she was more adorable than the other would-bes vying for the role.

Aside from Carrey and Momsen, the other actors don't leave an impression. Jeffrey Tambor plays the Mayor of Whoville, a man whose grudge against the Grinch goes back to when they were both eight years old. Christine Baranski is the woman who has had a secret crush on the Grinch since before his self-imposed exile to Mount Crumpet. And Molly Shannon and Bill Irwin play Little Cindy's parents. The narration is spoken by Anthony Hopkins, who uses his rich voice to set a non-threatening tone. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a fable; it is designed to be funny and uplifting but never scary, no matter how frightening the title character might believe himself to be.

Putting aside the question of whether the movie is necessary in the overall scheme of things, How the Grinch Stole Christmas represents a solid hour and a half of genuine family entertainment. Unlike most live action movies making a similar claim, there is no toilet humor (apparently, Dr. Seuss' widow had something to do with that), making this a refreshingly "clean" comedy. For Carrey, whose caged energy is released, this falls just short of a tour de force. Last year, he became Andy Kaufman; this year, it's the Grinch. He brings animation to the live action, and, surrounded by glittering, fantastical sets and computer-spun special effects, Carrey enables Ron Howard's version of the classic story to come across as more of a welcome endeavor than a pointless re-tread.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2000-11-17
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1