For this holiday “classic,” the re-viewing torch has been passed onto guest writer Brian Rowe. You can read more of his work at http://www.suite101.com/profile.cfm/brianrowe
Long before my life started in Los Angeles, and long before I realized I was gay, I had one major crush during my sophomore year in high school by the name of Erin Snodgrass. I had seen her fleetingly during my freshman year, but I was ecstatic, and a little bit mortified, when she stumbled into my chemistry class on the first day of sophomore year. I couldn’t believe I finally had zero excuses to go talk to her. When the teacher Mr. Heywood assigned us our seats, I was barely able to catch my breath when he assigned Ms. Snodgrass the seat right behind me — I had never been so happy to be a Rowe.
Over the next two months I started making small talk with her, trying on a daily basis to make her laugh and see if she had any attraction toward me. In November I decided the time had come to ask her out on a date. I figured we could go grab a bite to eat, see a movie or something. I had just received my driver’s license two weeks prior and was ready to take my black VW bug for a spin with a member of the opposite sex. I tried to think of a movie she might like. Charlie’s Angels was fun, frothy entertainment, but I had already seen it. A horror movie would’ve been a good call, but Blair Witch 2 had already been pulled from Reno theatres.
It didn’t take me long to decide on the perfect movie to take her to. I had been waiting for this one all year. I was talking it up to my friends, my brothers, my parents. I mean, it wasn’t every day my favorite actor had a new movie, let alone a new movie that featured him as one of the iconic characters of all children’s books! I was going to be seeing this one on Friday night, anyway, so I figured I might as well ask the stunning junior, who with her long black curly hair and freckles on her cheeks looked a bit like Kristin Kreuk’s twin sister, to come with me. “Erin?” I asked, turning around to meet her apathetic gaze. “I was just wondering, you know, if you weren’t busy this weekend, if you had any interest in seeing The Grinch with me.” She smiled politely but said, “No, I can’t this weekend, I’m sorry.” I nodded and sunk down in my seat, rejected and forlorn. Then she said to the back of my head: “Besides, that movie looks super lame.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Lame? How could she even assume such a thing? This was a new movie starring the great Jim Carrey directed by the legendary director Ron Howard! Anything short of a magical two hours was going to be a huge disappointment. Walking into How the Grinch Stole Christmas on Friday, November 17, 2000, with a couple of my guy friends in tow, I prepared myself for what I assumed was going to be one of the great fantasy movies of the year.
My love for Jim Carrey had gone all the way back to the early 90’s, when my dad showed me clips of him playing Fire Marshall Bill on In Living Color. In 1994 I became a Jim Carrey wannabe, a shamefully annoying 10-year-old who just kept endlessly quoting Ace Ventura, The Mask, and Dumb & Dumber. Except for The Cable Guy, I grew to love every Carrey movie of the 90’s, particularly The Truman Show, which still ranks as one of my ten favorite films today. I was ambivalent toward Me, Myself, and Irene, but I knew The Grinch was going to be Carrey’s big, exciting comeback film after a couple of movies didn’t perform well.
And it some ways, this movie was a comeback, if you just look at the box office stats. The movie went on to gross over 300 million dollars worldwide. It stayed number one at the box office in the US for four straight weekends, until finally being topped by Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt in What Women Want. During Valentine’s Day weekend 2001, three months after the film’s release, people were still plunking their money down to celebrate the Christmas spirit with this thing. The success of it proved that, especially when it comes to family films, big box office doesn’t necessarily mean quality.
I sat down in the Park Lane theatre in Reno, Nevada that November night ready for my senses to be filled to the brim with wonder. Instead I was met with giant shits thrown at my face for the better part of two hours. I knew from the opening shots, the first images of the town, the introductions to all the Who’s, that the movie wasn’t going to work as well I hoped it would. But I held out for Carrey. I thought maybe Carrey could save it. But not even his wildly unrestrained performance could save the film. Back in 2000, when my untrained movie-watching eyes found entertainment value in practically any movie, and I found myself liking a whole lot more than what I didn’t, I still could recognize dung when I saw it. I remember walking out of the theater wanting to rush home and turn on another movie, any movie, just to get the rotten taste of Ron Howard’s abysmal misfire out of my mouth.
What happened next? Well, ten years passed. I’m tougher; wiser; sleeping with guys, not girls, named Erin; and definitely more cynical when it comes to any movies advertised as “family entertainment.” What I found most interesting about watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas for the first time in ten years was realizing how jaded I’ve become. In 2000 I found this movie to be not only a disappointment but also a cataclysmic abomination in the eyes of the perfect 1966 original TV classic. Walking out of this movie ten years ago, I was pissed to the point of wanting to punch someone. Watching it now didn’t invite that kind of reaction. Instead I found the Ron Howard movie to be a mildly annoying piece of mediocrity. This is a film no one in 2010 looks back fondly on. There’s nothing in it that’s in any way memorable or funny or magical. It just sits there limply on the screen, without any life or exuberance. It’s a product, one that was meant to make loads of money for Universal, and in that respect, this film succeeded wholeheartedly. But not even Brian Grazer and Ron Howard can today admit this is anything but one of their lesser efforts that should sit in both their icky basement drawers next to thirty unopened DVD copies of The Da Vinci Code.
The movie’s not in every way completely horrible. Watching it again I recognized a few aspects to the movie that worked better today than it did ten years ago. Let’s take the opening for example, which has one successful element, followed by lots of bad ones. Anthony Hopkins as the narrator, while no Boris Karloff, has a warm, lyrical quality to his voice that works well with this material. The opening thirty seconds might be the best of the entire film, that is until we glide into a live-action Whoville and find ourselves wishing we had entered a different snowflake. The filmmakers gush on the behind-the-scenes documentary that Whoville marked the largest set to be built on the Universal backlot up to that time. Whoop-de-do. These sets aren’t charming or joyful; they’re bright cheery houses from Hell. Rick Baker claims that he worked hard not to make the Who’s too scary looking, but he didn’t succeed. While it might have been off-putting to see humans in more outlandish make-up and costumes more in tune with the animated characters of the 60’s TV special, watching people who look mostly normal but with long snouts that point upward is not in any way an enjoyable experience.
But no matter what they look like, it’s the personalities of the Who’s that might be the biggest screenwriting misstep of the entire film. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, and I don’t know if any writer could’ve come up with a better solution. I get it — in a feature-length movie you have to enliven the Who’s with some personality, some differences. But most of the Who’s are so abhorrently unlikable that by the ten-minute mark, we’re ready for the Grinch to light up a missile and put the entire town out of its misery. These aren’t creatures who would any day or night find meaning in Christmas; they are money-spending, gift-hungry snobs more concerned with being competitive with their Christmas lights than spending a single moment of quality time with their families. The writers try to make you believe that in the end one little girl convinces the entire town to forget about the bells and whistles and discover the true meaning of the holiday; in reality, these people would rip the blonde girl to shreds and roast her buttocks for dinner.
Much of the first hour is filler. By the time the Grinch decides to rob the Who’s of all their belongings, we’re two-thirds of the way through. Much of that first hour is comprised of a forced storyline where Cindy Lou Who (played be a six-year-old Taylor Momsen) takes a great interest in the Grinch and tries to make it possible for the outcast to spend Christmas with the Who’s. So, yes, we get the obligatory flashback scenes where we find out why the Grinch hates the holiday so much. Ugh, flashback scenes didn’t work in the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Tim Burton re-imagining, and they don’t work here. The material not present in Dr. Seuss’ classic tale is such a bore that it prevents any section of the movie from working. We have the Grinch charging down to the town not twice like in the original but four times, those first two times lessening the impact those last thirty minutes are supposed to have! Yes, I know, something needs to happen to get this movie past the 90-minute mark, but somehow, somewhere, better ideas could have been formed, I’m sure of it.
Jim Carrey’s work in the last decade has not been nearly as accomplished as the previous one, despite a couple funny performances and a terrific turn in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I like to pinpoint the problem on Man on the Moon. He put every bit of his heart and soul into that Andy Kaufman performance in 1999, and it almost seems like in the last ten years that he’s taken that Adam Sandler-Eddie Murphy route of making safer, more routine film choices. He’s fine as The Grinch, but it feels at times like he has absolutely no idea how to approach the character. Much of this fault can’t be pointed at Carrey himself but at director Howard and the writers. The character in the cartoon version is an intelligent, cynical outcast looking for some way to quiet the cheery spirits on all those Who’s down the mountain. In the feature film version, the Grinch is just a cartoon. While some of these kooky aspects worked for Jim Carrey in that other green-faced fellow movie The Mask, talking to the camera, impersonating film directors, and outrunning exploding mini-cars don’t make for a worthwhile live-action Grinch. He seems to be doing a mix of The Mask, Ace Ventura, and Andy Kaufman’s alter ego Tony Clifton, trying to find some sort of unique personality for the character that never materializes. He isn’t helped by a screenplay that gives him almost nothing to work with. It’s almost as if they just said, “hey, we got fucking Jim Carrey to play the Grinch, just let him do his thing!”
The one main element of How the Grinch Stole Christmas that worked better this time, that I didn’t even really pay much attention to the first time around, is Taylor Momsen’s performance as Cindy Lou Who. She’s actually pretty charming in the role. And little did I remember that this is really more her movie than Carrey’s, as most everything that happens throughout the story is a result of her actions. In the ten years since seeing the film I had forgotten that Momsen, who is now well known as a sleazy dopehead on Gossip Girl, as well as a supremely frightening musician, was even in this. It’s weird to watch her croon uplifting Christmas songs and peer up at the Grinch with kind, innocent eyes, knowing just what the next ten years would bring to that little girl. But she’s pretty good in the movie, not annoying in the least, totally natural in her first major screen role. It seems Ron Howard did something right.
But I’m not letting Mr. Howard off the hook just yet. Let’s discuss the Oscar-winning director, shall we? While he’s a step above someone like Brett Ratner, Ron Howard is not really the man one goes to to create a visionary fantasy world. While Howard can be talented directed emotional dramas like Apollo 13, Backdraft, and the recent Frost / Nixon, his knack for worlds of wonder scream “studio product!” more than “fun-filled family entertainment!” How the Grinch Stole Christmas needed a different, more ambitious director. Imagine what Guillermo Del Toro would’ve done with this material. It’s a live-action film based on a book by Dr. Seuss for God’s sake! This movie needed a director with a vision, not a director who can at times feel like a routine choice for a generic sure-fire moneymaker.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas was a hit movie that had its place and time ten years ago that today is mostly forgotten about even by those who hold the 1966 Boris Karloff-narrated classic in their hearts. Ten years from now when families are sitting around their fireplace watching the cartoon for the umpteenth time, there might be an adult on the couch who turns to his or her husband or wife and says, “Oh God, remember that Jim Carrey version?” And the husband or wife will say, “Oh yeah, forgot that existed. That movie was super lame.” It turns out my former crush Erin Snodgrass made the right decision that day after all.
- I never realized Whoville was located in a snowflake.
- The Universal back lot looks so large and roomy!
- Rick Baker’s Oscar-winning make-up for the Grinch is pretty spectacular, no matter what the screenplay, directing, and acting might do to change your mind.
- Jeffrey Tambor wasn’t the worst casting choice to play the Mayor.
- Sometimes the Grinch sounds exactly like Andy Kaufman’s alter ego Tony Clifton.
- Bill Irwin, taking a break from a prestigious theatre career, collects a paycheck.
- Molly Shannon stares off in space a lot while making another one of her dozen career missteps.
- Whoville built an uphill garbage shoot? Seems rather illogical, don’t you think?
- Taylor Momsen sings! Who knew her music career started in this movie?
- Cindy Lou Who’s view from her bedroom window is of the Grinch’s scary mountain home? Thanks Mom and Dad.
- Margaret, played by Christine Baranski, has a thing for The Grinch. Can’t wait to see their interracial child.
- Speaking of Grinch romantic relations, does the Grinch have a penis? Can he have sex? If so, he’s got a whole lot of sperm backed up in there.
- Look! The monkey from Toy Story 3!
- 55 minutes before the movie’s first gay joke: “Fabulous!”
- Carrey shouting with defeat, “I’m speaking in rhyme!” is one of the few funny lines in the movie.
- The mini-car explosion might be the dumbest, most inexplicable thing in the whole movie.
- Cindy Lou Who is an intelligent little girl who would recognize without a doubt that the man behind the tree was the Grinch, not Santa Clause! Come on!
- Why is Cindy Lou Who on top of the giant bag of gifts at the end? Oh, right, so that she can be in peril when the sled starts slipping down the mountain…
- Jim Carrey would go on to play a similar character nine years later — Ebenezer Scrooge in Robert Zemeckis’ umpteenth adaptation of A Christmas Carol!
- A black Who can be spotted in the last scene!
- Verne Troyer is credited as playing “Band Member.”
- Bryce Dallas Howard is credited as playing “Surprised Who.”
- The film is dedicated to Ron’s mother Jean Howard with an end title that says she “loved Christmas most of all.” Here’s possibly the one genuine sentiment in the entire movie.