Jim Carrey steals the show in Howard's 'The Grinch'

by John Teti | 11/20/00 6:00am

Editor's Note -- In conjunction with the release of Universal's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," The Dartmouth is featuring a three-part series on the story and its author, Dr. Seuss -- also known as Theodor Geisel '27. A review of the film runs today, followed by a look at Dr. Seuss's time at Dartmouth on Tuesday and a feature on the many faces of "The Grinch" on Wednesday.

"Make sure to say that nothing can be better than the original cartoon special."

This was the admonishment of a friend after I told him I would be reviewing the new feature film adaptation of Dr. Seuss's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Issues of journalistic integrity aside, the remark showed me a few problems this production would face.

The first is that the TV special is regarded as sacrosanct -- anything that comes after must be a rip-off. But the oft-forgotten book is the only "original." Chuck Jones' interpretation of "The Grinch," while authorized by Seuss himself, is artistically no more valid than Ron Howard's version.

Along the same lines, trying to compare the quality of a 25-minute animated cartoon to a 105-minute live-action feature film is like trying to say which is the better "Lion King" -- the movie or the Broadway musical. The productions have to be taken separately because their venues are too different.

The deeper motivation for my friend's comment, though, hinges on the place of "The Grinch" in our pop-culture canon. Both the book and the TV special featured Seuss's mildly psychedelic illustrations and a simple plot empasizing the importance of love for your fellow man over consumerism. "The Grinch," like most of Seuss's work, is traditional enough to be accepted by the mainstream but has enough of an anti-establishment undercurrent to be adopted by each successive generation of teens and twenty-somethings.

So, to many, it's sacrilege for the Hollywood machine to churn out a blockbuster based on this classic -- such extravagance must be in direct conflict with the meaning of "The Grinch." The question is, does "The Grinch" use its extravagance well enough to overcome these ideological disadvantages?

On most counts, the answer is yes. Jim Carrey creates a sufficiently cartoonish live-action Grinch, although some credit must be given to the makeup crew -- you can't even tell it's Carrey under all that green. The vocal and physical contortions are also impressive, for while there are some Carrey trademarks present, his rendition of the Grinch is mostly distinct from Ace Ventura, The Mask, etc. The "You're a Mean One" sequence in particular features some very funny new physical gags from Carrey, enhanced by the presence of that classic song in the background.

When Carrey is off-screen -- a fortunately rare instance -- the film drags considerably. Christine Baranski is underused as the town debutante, and the rest of the cast is mostly mundane. The exception is Taylor Momsen, who plays Little Cindy Lou-Who. My initial reaction to Momsen was one of disgust, as it generally is to the eyelash-batting, oh-too-cute brats that increasingly populate movies and television.

And while my gut wrenched as Momsen cooed her way through the "Where Are You, Christmas" music montage, I had to admit by the end of the film that she was quite good as child stars go. Momsen plays her part as naturally as the script would allow -- and how could I stay mad at that hair?

That three-tier hairdo complements the lavish work of production designer Michael Corenblith. An amazing attention to detail is evident in every set and prop. The Whoville post office marks express packages with a "Heckuvarush" stamp. The Grinch's alarm clock has too many hands and turns the wrong way. Such touches make the design work on a small scale.

On a grand scale, the visuals of "The Grinch" fell short. The buildings of Whoville are clearly constructed to emulate the physically impossible oddities of Seuss's drawings, but the Candy Land houses never evoke more than a fleeting familiarity with the original.

Everything is too static. Seuss's illustrations, despite laying flat on the printed page, always make buildings and objects look in a state of flux, about to topple over yet somehow defying gravity. Corenblith doesn't -- and perhaps couldn't -- achieve this effect on the big screen.

The cinematography is also lacking. "The Grinch" is rife with close-ups on the aforementioned details; conversely, long shots of Whoville are aggravatingly infrequent. More than one chaotic chase scene tears its way through the town, but the restrictive shooting style gives the feeling that each action takes place on a different set, crippling continuity between shots.

"The Grinch" is a movie with significant weaknesses overshadowed by more significant strengths. There is an irritating lack of any sense of space, but the non-stop eye candy compensates. Similarly, Carrey's inspired characterization of the Grinch makes up for a ho-hum supporting cast.

And what about that pesky message? This is Howard's master stroke. "The Grinch" emphasizes the same old love-over-consumerism theme. More importantly, it plays not as an attempt to replicate the tone of the children's book and the TV special, but as a tribute to them. And as Howard knows, a tribute to Seuss's most beloved work is something everyone likes to see.