A Garish Grinch

Ron Howard's movie misunderstands the moral framework of Dr. Seuss' classic.

"How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is a charming little tale, told with style and containing the solid morality that good children's books need. The Grinch is an irresistibly malevolent curmudgeon, part Scrooge, part Mr. Potter from "It's a Wonderful Life," part Oscar the Grouch. He's nasty and mean, to be sure, but not the kind of threatening that sends children scurrying to their parents' beds in the middle of the night. His principle defect--a heart "two sizes too small"--gets fixed when he sees unadulterated Christmas-morning joy in the town of Whoville, despite his attempt to disable the holiday altogether.

The Grinch has been brought to screen life before, depicted, in a wonderful marriage of professional villainy, by the voice of Boris Karloff in the cartoon "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" The 1966 television special was faithful to Dr. Seuss' text, with the exception of the addition of a few musical numbers, and as these things go, it was fine. Not "A Charlie Brown Christmas"--and still inferior to the book--but a nice way for kids to spend a half hour during the holidays, and modestly in keeping with the story's message.


Now Ron Howard has made a live-action version of the Dr. Seuss classic with "The Grinch." The result is garish. Howard seems to have morphed into Tim Burton's good twin, mixing the aesthetic of Burton's "Batman" with the ambiance of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." The sets are fantastical, the make-up and costumes are the stuff of fairy tales, and every detail down to Anthony Hopkins' voice-over narration is nearly perfect.

But because he needs to fill 100 minutes, Howard draws out a ridiculous back story for the Grinch (played by Jim Carrey) and an entire subplot concerning the mayor of Whoville (Jeffrey Tambor). Howard also has problems with his star. Carrey makes a good Grinch most of the time, but he feels the need to remind the audience that underneath all of the make-up and green fur is the man who made "Ace Ventura" a hit. The result is that every five minutes, like clockwork, we see a vintage Carrey-isms. He talks out of his butt, he prances, he mugs, he flips in and out of different agitated voices. It is a testament to the power of stardom that not even a top-level director like Howard can rein in someone making $20 million a picture.

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