“Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot
But the Grinch who lived just north of Whoville did not”
How the Grinch Stole Christmas directed by Ron Howard, was one of the biggest hits of 2000. And while audiences loved it at the time, critical reaction was lukewarm. The general critical consensus seemed to be that Jim Carrey was entertaining in the title role, but it didn’t meet the standard of Chuck Jones’ famous cartoon from 1966. Or the book, for that matter.
I was only eight years old when the movie first came out, and I didn’t see it, because I’d heard my younger cousin was terrified of the film and therefore thought it would be scary. But a few months later, I was home from school, incredibly sick, and my Mum rented the VHS (remember those days?) thinking it would give me a laugh. And by Seuss, I fell in love with the movie. I laughed myself better. Thank you for that, movie.
After watching it over and over for a few years, I put the movie aside, and just before Christmas 2014, I watched it again. Without the nostalgia goggles on, I was able to see the flaws of the film. But I still found myself enjoying it quite a bit.
But first, the source material. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is Ted Geisel’s 1957 book about an odd grouchy creature who despises Christmas, and the Whos in Whoville who adore the season. He decides enough is enough and vows to stop the holiday from coming. The Grinch dresses as Santa Claus and steals the presents, food and decorations from the town, only to find that the Whos are still happy to celebrate Christmas without the material objects. He realises where the true meaning of Christmas lies, and returns everything to the town’s welcoming arms and even joins in the festivities. It’s a very iconic story, and the Grinch has been cemented in pop culture as one of the great villains of Christmas.
Interestingly enough, the Grinch character was based on….well, Dr Seuss himself! Realising he was becoming a bit of a Grinch, he wrote the book to see if he could rediscover the magic of the holiday. The only clue to this connection in the book is the Grinch saying “Why, fifty three years I’ve put up with it now!” and Seuss was 53 when the book was published. He even drove a car with GRINCH number plates.
As a whole, The Grinch is one of the most story-driven of Seuss’ books, far more so than something like Cat in the Hat. The strength of the story comes from the moral, and the main character. Seuss’ bold choice to have the villain of the piece also be the protagonist makes for a very fun journey as he finds his redemption alongside the readers. The message is very anti-consumerism, and reminds all who read it that the true spirit of Christmas comes from love and togetherness.
Therefore, The Grinch is one of the easiest to adapt to screen. The 1966 special was the first animated adaptation of Seuss’ works. Seuss himself was very involved in the making of the piece, not only producing but also writing the lyrics for the songs. The cartoon was decently received upon premiere, but has since gone on to be recognised as a classic of the genre.
Again, it probably wasn’t necessary to remake this, but to Ron Howard’s credit, he said he wouldn’t even try to retell the animated short, since it was already perfect. And for what the movie is, it’s actually ok. At least for my taste. Sure, there’s a lot of choices that are questionable, but I still like the film. What do I mean? Let’s take a look.
First, I’ll take the elephant out of the room by saying I really like Jim Carrey as the Grinch. It’s not a perfect performance (what is) but he gives it his all, as usual. Carrey has said in interviews that the makeup was “horrifying” and he was taught torture resistant techniques by the CIA to endure filming. To his everlasting credit, you’d never be able to tell. Jim Carrey’s famously expressive face was able to work through all that makeup (by the way, the makeup in the film is incredible!) and physically, he owns that costume and works with it. Seriously, go watch the movie again and see how effortlessly he acts as the Grinch. It never appears uncomfortable or awkward, though it must have been a nightmare. Kudos to Carrey for being so professional. 6-year-old Taylor Momsen, carries the role of Cindy Lou with a lot of charm and the rest of the cast are fun and quirky in their own way. So, I have nothing against the acting.
Now, the writing. Most criticism aimed at The Grinch comes from the expansion of the story. Before I go in too deep, there’s two things I should note. Number one, it’s a feature length film. It’s a different medium and someone with a different vision at the helm. Changes to books aren’t just inevitable, they are necessary. Number two, changes are fine as long as they serve the story or at least respect the basic source material. And while some choices here may be misguided, they’re still understandable.
In the film, the Whos are more developed. As well as being obsessed by the holiday, they are materialistic and competitive. Some might disagree with this choice, as the Whos seem a bit unsavoury and mean, but this change gives them a story arc alongside the Grinch.
The Grinch is given a backstory which explains why he hates Christmas. He was mocked at school during a Christmas gift exchange, and that was that. Whether or not that makes sense is up for debate, but it’s still a reason. Of course, his heart is two sizes too small, but having another explanation makes him more three dimensional in the world of the movie.
I will say this, though. Despite being a clever idea for a character arc, the Whos can be quite mean-spirited, especially at the Whobiliation Christmas party, and therefore are hard to sympathise with. So for the movie, perhaps an alternative could have been the Grinch needing to realise people can change as they grow up, and the Whos needing to realise the pain they had caused him. But I’m just speculating.
As for Cindy Lou, her role is hugely expanded. In the book, she only appears once while the Grinch steals the Christmas tree. In the film, Cindy Lou is the only one who senses that Christmas is more than just gifts and lights. She is also the only one willing to see The Grinch as…..for lack of a better term, a person, the only one brave enough to talk to him, and the only one willing to give him a chance and include him. Her spirit encourages the town to a new way of thinking and essentially brings the Grinch around. In this way, she’s given a lot of respect by the writers. It just goes to show Seuss’ belief that children are just as smart as adults.
The first two acts of The Grinch focus on Cindy Lou trying to convince the Grinch to come down from Mount Crumpit and urging Whoville to accept him. None of that is in the book, but it allows for character development and the audience can become immersed in this world. The third act is practically identical to the book, and narration by the legendary Anthony Hopkins throughout the whole thing ties it all together nicely. I might add, the narration is almost verbatim.
All that being said, how does the film hold up after 15 years? Well, it does and it doesn’t. The film’s main shortcomings are in the design department and the characterisation of the Whos, to a degree. Whoville isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as it could be. Visually, the colours are too muted and there’s a lot going on so it all becomes a bit crowded. I’m not personally put off by the Whos’ heavy makeup but I can certainly see why others would be. And like I said, some of the Whos, like the Mayor, are too nasty to be likeable.
Even after all these years, I find The Grinch to be a very funny movie, no small thanks to Jim Carrey. I like the characters, I like the atmosphere and I like the comedy. This isn’t a corporate cash-grab at all. Some of the story choices are a little misguided but I believe they are done with the purest of intentions. The movie seems to be its own creation, and still has a moral. Every change made to the story still matches the vision and tone of the film, and at least goes all the way.
Is the film perfect? No.
Are there elements that don’t work? Absolutely.
As a Seuss purist, I probably shouldn’t like The Grinch, since it isn’t 100% faithful to the book. But this doesn’t make it a bad movie. Sure, it’s got it’s major problems, but I think you can call it my guilty pleasure, and it will always make me laugh. Take my thoughts for what it’s worth and draw your own conclusion.
Next week: The Cat in the Hat