How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman
Directed by Ron Howard
Why? This is a question I often ask when going back and looking at older films, especially those adapted from popular IPs. These days it’s surprising when a film playing in the theater isn’t a cash grab on a well-known character or a single piece of an endlessly sprawling cinematic universe. In 2000, we were by no means in a golden age of cinema, but at least you could see something and be surprised by it. For years, Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, had refused to sell the film rights to his children’s books. He’d okayed some cartoon shorts but held fast that he didn’t want movie theaters to be showing bloated versions of his simplistic texts. Then he died in 1991. “Take that, you book-writing bitch!” Hollywood seemed to cackle. By 1998, the boys in LA had convinced Geisel’s widow to sign over the film rights of The Grinch. She stipulated in a letter that whoever plays the Grinch must be of the stature of “Jack Nicholson, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, and Dustin Hoffman.” All this makes me want is a Nicholson-led Grinch. Can you imagine?!
The basics are all there. Whoville loves Christmas. The Grinch (Jim Carrey) lives on a nearby mountain and hates it. He plots to steal all their holiday paraphernalia but is stymied by little Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen). Eventually, the Grinch learns to love Christmas too, and his heart grows larger, you know the book. But how do you stretch two dozen pages with just over 1300 words into a feature-length motion picture? Well, you add a handful of new characters and an unnecessary backstory for the main character. Did you ever wonder where the Grinch came from? “Fuck no,” you say. Aaaaaaanyway. He came down in a little bundle to the home of a pair of Who women and then got bullied so badly at school he ran away to the mountain where he now lives. Oh yes, and that bullying is what led him to hate Christmas. Don’t you appreciate the rich nuance of Dr. Seuss’ children’s book better now?
Rewatching this version of The Grinch was such a bizarre experience. The last time I’d seen it was around 22 years ago in the theater with my family (I was home on winter break during my freshman year of college). I did not enjoy it then, but I liked a few more things this time. The single shining spot, in my opinion, is Jim Carrey’s utterly unhinged performance. This man is giving his fucking all, acting like they are holding him at gunpoint on set, and it’s pretty much perfect. Before this, if you had imagined Carrey as The Grinch, it would have been close to what we got on screen. It reminds us how skillfully the actor uses his body as an instrument. Some pretty good physical comedy, a trait we seem to be losing as those sorts of feats are being accomplished with digital special effects.
Where the movie falls apart is in every other department. I applaud the use of a physical setting with some elaborate production design. However, it looks really cheap. The Universal Islands of Adventure Seuss section could have been a stand-in for Whoville. Everything looks like a veneer of a small city, and it never feels like there is depth to the characters or setting. I’m not looking for Fellini here, but part of the appeal of Seuss is that his worlds are so fascinating to look at and surprise with their unconventional designs.
The Grinch film is just a case of a studio presenting production design with some pictures from the books and telling them to make that. I didn’t feel like the artists involved had much of a hand in building out what Seuss established, which made the movie’s runtime drag on that much worse. More set pieces with the Grinch instead of backstory and subplots would have avoided this, but that’s not what we got. Ironically, that IS what they did with The Cat and The Hat, which didn’t turn out well, so what the hell do I know? (Though I place that far more on the casting of Mike Meyers)
We’ll see a theme throughout this A Very 2000s Christmas series we’ve just embarked upon, and it’s very present in this movie. That is the aesthetic of the obnoxious. If you are old enough, then you can remember it. Found chiefly, but not exclusively, in children’s entertainment, this is when storytelling elements seem amped up on too much caffeine, a mutation of the 1990s Extreme tone resulting in an over-fried brain melt of sensory overload. Fish eye lenses and extreme close-ups. Music that punctuated moments in a heavy-handed way. This was almost an attempt to layer the feel of a cartoon over live-action performances. You can partly blame Carrey for it with movies from the 1990s, like The Mask. Even as a teenager/young adult, I hated this stylization, and rewatching the film confirmed that it had aged like spoiled milk.
Give me the one-two punch of Chuck Jones’s animation and Boris Karloff’s narration any day. I get that for some Millennials and Zoomers, this holds a nostalgic place in their hearts because they saw it at a very formative age, but Ron Howard’s Grinch continues a long tradition of the director being responsible for just the most mid-tier dreck. Merry fucking Christmas, and there’s more to come!