“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” answered questions no one was asking

How the Grinch Stole Christmas Jim Carrey in How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Universal Pictures)

Ron Howard’s live-action take on the Dr. Seuss’s classic remains a crass & unpleasant mess that has the gall to present an anti-materialism message.

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On Werewolves and Lollipops, Patton Oswalt does a routine about how the Star Wars prequels failed because George Lucas overestimated how interested audiences would be in Anakin Skywalker’s life before he became Darth Vader. “[CHARACTER] when they were younger” is the refuge of the lazy screenwriter, because it rehashes tired plots while making gullible audiences think they’re seeing something fresh and new. Rarely if ever does it add anything valuable to the character overall, and feels more like fanfiction than anything else. Ron Howard, under the impression that people wanted to know the Grinch’s origin story, turned a twenty minute cartoon into a joyless hour and a half live action film, choking out everything that makes its source material so charming.

Chuck Jones’ animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas is one of my favorite holiday specials, which I still try to watch every Christmas, even though my only child is now an adult herself. Its brilliance is in its simplicity: the Grinch steals Christmas, learns that Christmas is about love and togetherness, gives Christmas back, the end. No questions are left unanswered, no plot threads left dangling. In the 40-plus times I’ve watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas, never once did I wonder about where the Grinch came from, or why he was so mean. Hell, I never even wondered what the Grinch was. The movie, however, based on a script by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, gives more information than the audience could possibly want or need. We learn about the Grinch’s childhood, the local politics of Whoville, and a weird love triangle. The actual stealing of Christmas doesn’t even happen until well into the second act, and ends up being secondary to the main story, a tiresome take on the “Christmas turns everyone into insufferable assholes” plot that was inexplicably popular in the 90s and early 00s.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas is anchored by Jim Carrey in the title role, and he gives 200% to his performance. But he’s not playing the Grinch. Wearing Rick Baker’s impressively horrifying makeup, he’s playing Jack Torrance after being bitten by a green werewolf, tied together with a bunch of weird vocal affectations and lightning fast quips and pop culture references that undoubtedly went over most young viewers’ heads. While the Grinch of the book and cartoon just seems like a grumpy old man, who might keep your baseball if it lands in his yard, here he’s nearly incandescent with rage, wishing violence and death upon the citizens of Whoville. He doesn’t just hate Christmas, he hates the Whos themselves, in a way that’s ostensibly supposed to be silly and over the top, but, in a family film, is unsettling.

It’s even more off-putting once you discover why the Grinch hates the Whos. Thanks to an extended flashback, we learn that the Grinch was bullied as a child by a group of Whos, led by Augustus May Who, played as an adult by Jeffrey Tambor. If you find adult Grinch’s makeup off-putting, brace yourself for Young Grinch, played by Josh Ryan Evans, a bearded nightmare that looks like he should be hiding under a bridge and demanding one gold coin to pass. Even worse than Young Grinch is Baby Grinch, a largely animatronic creation that comes straight out of someone’s NyQuil-induced hallucination. It’s made worse by the fact that you know that Howard and Co. envisioned a smash toy tie-in, with Baby Grinch dolls and Mount Crumpit playsets. Interestingly, though the movie itself was an unequivocal hit, its merchandising, which included action figures, a sing-along puppet and a clock, tanked. Even the movie, while briefly maintaining its success on DVD, seems to have disappeared into the pop culture ether, without gaining “new classic” status, like its Halloween counterpart Hocus Pocus

While the Grinch of the book and cartoon just seems like a grumpy old man, who might keep your baseball if it lands in his yard, here he’s nearly incandescent with rage, wishing violence and death upon the citizens of Whoville.

But I digress. We not only find out more than we could possibly want to know about the Grinch, but we also get a whole heaping amount of exposition about the Whos, those plucky folks who still manage to celebrate Christmas even after the Grinch stole the last can of Who hash. Whereas in the cartoon they’re friendly looking sort of dog-humanoid creatures (with antennae, for some reason), in the movie they’re rat-faced mutants, and somehow even harder to look at than the Grinch himself. Going by the book and cartoon, you might get the impression that the Whos are humble and in touch with what really matters in life, hence why they’re not particularly put out when they discover what the Grinch has done. Here, however, they’re absolutely fucking bugnuts for Christmas. Obsessed with both giving and getting gifts, they compete with each other over who has the most elaborate Christmas decorations, and participate in a pageant in which someone is designated the “Cheermeister.”

The only skeptic in the bunch is Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen), originally “no more than 2,” but now school age and given to saying such charmingly folksy things as “I myself am having some Yuletide doubts.” Naturally, Cindy Lou is the only person(?) who can see past the Grinch’s facade, while also figuring out that the Whos themselves are a bunch of phony hypocrites, who preach kindness while focusing on material items and snubbing the Grinch. So, you see, everyone must learn a lesson about the true meaning of Christmas, isn’t that nice?

If you think reading about this horseshit is hard, try watching it. Try getting through all ninety minutes of this $123 million treatise against materialism.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas seems to be Ron Howard’s attempt at Tim Burton’s signature brand of dark whimsy, which is fine, but doesn’t work when paired with one of the most maudlin Christmas songs of the 00s, Faith Hill’s “Where Are You, Christmas.” The sole legacy of this tribute to candy cane striped excess, its mournful lyrics about losing the spirit of Christmas goes as well with the rest of the movie as pairing eggnog with tuna fish. Nothing works in it. It’s a holiday movie bafflingly free of any characters worth caring about. The only time it comes close to resembling its source material is when the Grinch actually steals Christmas, and by that point the audience is so actively disinterested in what’s going on that it doesn’t matter anymore. It tries desperately to cover all the holiday movie bases — slapstick, drama, a moral lesson and heartwarming redemption — with the subtle touch of a child after eating too many of Santa’s cookies.

If your argument in favor of How the Grinch Stole Christmas is that Audrey Geisel approved it, ergo it can’t be that bad, I remind you that her decision to sell the rights to it had less to do with script quality, and more with how much money she’d stand to make from it (a shitload, as it turned out). She also approved the even worse live action adaptation of The Cat in the Hat, in which the Cat implies several times how badly he wants to fuck the kids’ mother. So it’s possible that the Widow Seuss’ taste in scripts was suspect. Or, more likely, she knew these movies were going to make bank, and didn’t really care either way about their connection to the source material. Either way, at least she got paid, and at least Dr. Seuss wasn’t around to see them.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas Trailer:

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