Some stories are short for a reason.
Dr. Seuss’s children’s book How the Grinch Stole Christmas tells a simple tale about a mean old grouch who learns that love conquers all. The Grinch hates the Whos, it’s as simple as that. But no matter how much adversity he throws down on the town of Whoville, he’s never able to spoil Christmas. Animator Chuck Jones made a beloved animated cartoon of the story that stuck to the script, provided perfect voices for the characters, and added a memorable, brilliant song.
But Ron Howard’s movie adaptation stretches the story out to 109 minutes, gets preoccupied with why the Grinch is grouchy, and uses Whoville as an opportunity to show off special effects and a cast of seemingly hundreds. It also gives Jim Carrey the opportunity to turn in the most superhuman comic performance of his career.
For the spectacle of Carrey’s performance, I’m almost glad the movie was made.
But the rest of it is just bad storytelling, totally devoid of restraint. And worse — it is the opposite of a faithful adaptation. It is a betrayal of the original story’s lesson.
Excess is often a problem in Ron Howard movies. Backdraft, Parenthood, and Willow all had memorable moments, but collapsed under the weight of numerous uninteresting subplots, indulgent effects scenes, and/or too much melodrama. We didn’t get to know characters enough to really care about them, because we were so busy trying to keep track of everything. (A few exceptions — Apollo 13, Cocoon, and Ransom — demonstrate that Howard is better when he reins in the spectacle and lets actors do what they do best.)
To make matters worse, this Grinch’s soundtrack is spread on like ten layers of Cheez Wiz and recycled Danny Elfman themes. Sappy, shallow, forgettable songs are thrown in, like it’s a bad Disney straight-to-video sequel. And the town of Whoville is so busy with activity that you don’t get a chance to focus on any of its details or appreciate it.
It’s a tragedy, because Jim Carrey’s work here is so good.
Some people will say that this performance is nothing new for Carrey. And I agree — Carrey as an actor has not yet demonstrated much in the way of range. He can be manic (The Mask,Dumb and Dumber) and he can be sincere when he plays damaged childlike characters (The Truman Show, Man on the Moon). But this is his greatest performance, because he’s never had a character so suited to his strengths. Carrey, above all, is great at exaggeration. He doesn’t need special effects… he is a special effect. His rubber face stretches like a Tex Avery cartoon. He could win an Olympic medal for the athletic feats he pulls off here. He makes Robin Williams look cool, calm, and collected by comparison. Friends have told me they dislike him because he’s so over-the-top, but I think that’s because, when placed in a normal movie environment, he’s just too out-of-control. Here in Seuss-land, everything around him is out-of-control, so he fits right in with his surroundings.
Not only that, but he’s delivering this performance within what must have been a stifling costume. It’s like watching Michael Jordan win a championship in a straitjacket. Rick Baker’s makeup for The Grinch may be the most brilliant creature costume I’ve ever seen. Its magic is that somehow you can’t understand how Jim Carrey got inside it. And you can’t understand how Carrey makes every part of that outfit work. There’s not a moment where you can see the seams, where you can take time to figure out how he’s making it all so real. It’s the perfect fusion of a clown and a costume. He shoves his face into the camera and sinks broken yellow teeth into that trademark improvisational wackiness. And he digs deep for a guttural monstrous voice that’s half Sean Connery, half Jimmy Stuart.That alone could have been enough to make this film a classic. Carrey did his job. Now… just follow the story, and everything’s fine.
But after the opening 30 minutes, which are magical and exhilarating, we are yanked off the track and given a whole new twist… flashbacks of the Grinch’s childhood. Why the Grinch is so grumpy? Unrequited love, and people laughed at his ugliness. Yep. It’s as boring, as unimaginative, and as plain as an After-School Special. The marvel of Jim Carrey’s performance is that he gives us just enough of a glimpse of the Grinch’s heart so that we care about him. But then the movie doesn’t trust that to be enough, and shoves this boring, awkward, and unnecessary explanation under our nose.
Dr. Seuss books are about the outrageous, about whimsy, about where a fantasy can take you if you follow the rhyme scheme. This childhood chapter is rhymeless. It takes the Grinch far more seriously than he should ever be taken. It ruins the tone of the story. And, in spite of many great Grinch moments, it never recovers the joy of those first 30 minutes.
This “artistic license” steers the story so off-course that when the conclusion comes around, it lacks the resonance it should have. In Seuss’s story, the Grinch just hates Christmas until he understands it. In Howard’s version, the Grinch is mean because he’s angry over unrequited love, so it seems unlikely that the Christmas carols of the Whos would solve his problems. In fact, his problems aren’t solved at all. When the Grinch goes back down, supposedly full of love and a healthy heart, one of the first things he does is steal the girl and laugh vengefully at his old nemesis. No love or compassion here. This indulgent “nyah nyah-nyah nyah-nyaaaah nyah” at the rival’s expense spoils any sense we have of the Grinch becoming a compassionate soul. It is a clear sign that the storyteller doesn’t understand the story he is telling.
So in the end, I feel sorry for Jim Carrey. He is so good at his job, whether you like what he does or not. And he’s never had an opportunity to demonstrate his talents like he does here. When I pick up a copy of the video someday, I’ll fast-forward through it and watch his finest moments and then skip the rest.
Unfortunately, Ron Howard is the Grinch who stole Christmas from Jim Carrey, Dr. Seuss, and the children who deserve a better story.