What the Hell Was That? – How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

jim carrey grinch

The holiday season has it’s fair share of the good and the bad.  It’s true with every form of holiday entertainment.  In music you have Bing Crosby’s immortal “White Christmas” sharing playtime on the radio with Elmo & Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”  With TV Specials you have to endure Shrek the Halls (2007) in order to get to A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965).  And of course, there are a dozen or so bad Christmas movies to go along with the great ones.  We all have come to accept that not everything Christmas related is going to turn into quality entertainment.  It’s true with these as it is with any other type of film.  But, what I find so strange about bad Christmas movies is that they are sometimes given more of a pass for being awful just because they can serve as a time filler for the holidays.  Once out of the multiplexes, any Christmas movie is then able to find itself spotlighted once again in the holiday home video section at your local marketplace or on television as a featured presentation, regardless of whether or not it was good.  It doesn’t matter to the studios who make them, just as long as it shows that they’ve made something available for the consumer at Christmastime.  I think that’s why some of the lesser holiday fare like the laughable Jingle All the Way (1996) or the horrifying Jack Frost (1998) endure to this day;  consumers will still eat that garbage up just because of holiday nostalgia.  But, that becomes problematic when it keeps a truly awful film alive and fools everyone into thinking that it’s a worthwhile holiday film when it’s not. That’s exactly the case with what I believe to be one of the absolute worse Christmas movies ever made; the 2000 remake of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

The Grinch, to me, doesn’t just represent the worst kind of bad Christmas movie; it also represents the worst kind of film-making that Hollywood can create period.  Every wrong decision that could have been made in the creation of this disaster is present on screen and it just screams out as being nothing more than a studio driven market machine.  It wasn’t made to do anything other than make money, which completely goes against the original intention of the story itself.  Which leads to my other reason for hating this movie so much; it shamelessly exploits a holiday classic written by the legendary Dr. Seuss.  Seuss’ 1959 classic is not just a great Christmas tale, but also a brilliant meditation on the true meaning behind the season, stressing the importance of community over the desire for goods.  The remake attempts to retain that message, but it is constantly undercut by the film’s own superficial flashiness and it’s extensive studio driven requirement to appeal to every demographic, running contrary to the story’s original basics.  The end result becomes an ugly, aggressive, and just plain unpleasant cinematic blunder.  It’s everything that a Christmas movie shouldn’t be.  Is it the worst ever made?  In a relative sense, it probably is.  Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (2014) is more offensive morally, and direct to video fare like A Christmas Story 2 (2012) and Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure (2003) are more shameless as cash-ins.  But, as a big budget Christmas season offering, they don’t get much worse than The Grinch.

Dr. Seuss (alias of author Theodor Geisel) was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century and How the Grinch Stole Christmas is arguably his most renowned and widely published masterpiece, alone with “The Cat in the Hat”.  The rhyming prose and the illustrations done by Seuss himself both contributed to a delightful tale that has endeared itself into the hearts of multiple generations.  Telling the story of a grumpy green skinned hermit named the Grinch, the tale shows the character as he greedily wants to steal away everything related to Christmas from the neighboring Whos of Whoville in order to share with them the same misery he feels during the holidays.  But, to his surprise, he discovers that the Whos celebrate the holiday despite having nothing and their enduring spirit makes the Grinch reconsider what he’s done; and as the book states “his heart grew three sizes that day.”  In the end it’s a story that reaffirms what Christmastime should be about, which is goodwill towards our fellow man, whether they be a Who or a Grinch.  It’s a story that transcends age, race, gender, and religion, and because of that it is a universally beloved tale.  Naturally, something as popular as Dr. Seuss’ story would get the attention of Hollywood, and thankfully, it was acclaimed animator Chuck Jones that brought the story to life first, with the involvement and approval of Seuss himself of course. The 1966 special perfectly translated the book, retaining it’s loving message and it too has become a beloved classic over time.  Best of all, it added new elements like popular songs, including the always memorable “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” sung by Tony the Tiger actor Thurl Ravenscroft.  Both the book and the short have rightfully made the Grinch an iconic part of the holiday season, which makes the spoiling done by the movie remake all the more painful.

When it was announced that Universal Studios was going to do a big screen adaptation of the Dr. Seuss’ book, I’ll admit that I was looking forward to it.  I grew up with the short like everyone else, watching it almost religiously every Christmas with my family.  It’s the kind of holiday tradition that never gets old and How the Grinch Stole Christmas still holds up to this day.  The Boris Karloff narration, the unforgettable songs, the over-the-top way that Chuck Jones animated the Grinch’s devilish smile.  It’s all an indelible part of my childhood.  It’s also a beloved thing that crosses over generations.  My own mom considers this to be one of her favorites as well, and like me, she too was looking forward to the big screen version.  And when it was announced who was involved in it’s making, it appeared to all that this was going to be a top class production.  Not only did they manage to get Jim Carrey into the role of the Grinch, coming off a strong winning streak in the 90’s with films like Dumb and Dumber (1994), Liar, Liar (1997) and The Truman Show (1998), but Universal also tapped acclaimed filmmaker Ron Howard (1989’s Parenthood, 1995’s Apollo 13, 1996’s Ransom to name a few) to direct.  Overall, this looked like it was going to take Seuss’ vision to a whole other level and become a grand Christmas classic like it’s predecessors.  Both me and my mom went into the movie expecting something like that, but once the film started playing and we watched the final result of all that potential, we both walked away severely disappointed.  It was hard to comprehend at the time what went wrong, but when looking deeper into all the factors that made the original such a masterpiece and how this version ignored all of that, it became clearer as to how a disaster like this could happen.

First of all, let’s talk about translation.  Story wise, Dr. Seuss’ book is an easy one to comprehend.  Written for children, but also equally appealing to adults, the original tale is subtle and heartwarming.  Animation proved to be a perfect match for this kind of story, as the 30 minute run-time allowed for just enough time for the story to unfold without ever losing it’s momentum.  And Chuck Jones managed to find the right tempo as well, brilliantly casting Frankenstein actor Boris Karloff whose soothing yet intense British accent matched the persona of the Grinch to perfection.  The animation was also better suited to translate the Seussian style of design, which includes many twisted and unnatural shapes in both the architecture and environment, all recreated perfectly by famed background artist Maurice Noble.  Needless to say, if The Grinch needed to be brought to life, this was the way to do it.  Now, expanded to a 90 minute feature, there arises many more challenges, given the limitations of the material.  Not that they can’t be overcome with a deft adaptation, but what ended up happening here proves that even the most talented of artists and cast can fail in this endeavor.  Ron Howard’s The Grinch unfortunately dilutes the original tale to the point of being unrecognizable by adding a bunch of pointless filler.  Not only that, but the filler is also both crude and unnecessary, adding nothing to the film other than cheap laughs that only degrade the material rather than elevate it.  This movie unfortunately came at a time in the nineties when gross out humor was deemed popular, in the wake of the hit comedy There’s Something About Mary (1998).  Sadly this kind of sophomoric comedy seeped into family films as well, and The Grinch was not exempt.  In the movie, you get constant flatulence jokes throughout and even something as crude as a character kissing a dog’s behind.  Yep, just as Dr. Seuss envisioned.

The characters themselves are also mistreated in the story’s adaptation.  Now, I will admit, Oscar-winning make-up legend Rick Baker’s work on The Grinch is fairly impressive.  Jim Carrey, an actor with an extraordinary ability to transform himself physically in a role, is almost unrecognizable here.  In order to make the Grinch come to life in live action, this is about the best that could have been hoped for, and Carrey does throw himself admirably into the part.  Unfortunately, the script gives him nothing more to do than shtick, and it becomes grating after a while.  Carrey tries his best doing a Karloff impression in line with the original cartoon short, but the voice just sounds off when he’s combining it with wacky antics.  And he never shuts up.  One wishes for the restraint of Boris Karloff’s delicate reading, especially when we have to constantly hear Carrey’s Grinch screaming obscenities and telling characters to “pucker up” and kiss his ass in the film.  The Whos of Whoville don’t fare much better.  Of course, Seuss didn’t give much characterization to them in the first place, with only Cindy Lou Who being the only one of them named in the book.  Sadly in the movie, none of the Whos are given meaningful characterizations and they mostly come off as bland archetypes as a result.  Strangely, the script chooses to make them even more unlikable than the Grinch, showing them as shallow, greedy and prejudice people, changed only by the noble heart of Cindy Lou, who’s also generically drawn herself.  It’s their portrayal that really betrays the intention of Seuss’ story, diminishing the sense of community that made the original such a heartwarming tale.  Even Rick Baker’s make-up effects can’t save them, as actors like Bill Erwin, Jeffrey Tambor and Molly Shannon come off looking more grotesque than charming in their Whovian faces.

Which gets us to one of the more upsetting aspects of the film, which is the fact that it is an ugly looking movie.  Ron Howard’s approach to the story is exactly the wrong way to bring it to life, with bizarre choices in art direction and cinematography throughout.  The Seuss style in architecture is painstakingly recreated in the movie’s sets and environments, but it just feels wrong on screen.  By trying to be overly faithful to that style, the film only heightens the viewers sense of the setting’s artificiality, and it makes the audience keenly aware that this entire movie was filmed on a sound-stage.  There’s nothing that looks organic in the film; it’s all a messy overload of Seussian design.  To make matters worse, Howard took the extra bizarre step of washing out the color from the finished product in it’s color grading.  I don’t know if that was an artistic choice or not, but it adds an extra layer of unpleasantness to the film’s aesthetic.  The washed out color just leaves the film with this cold and sickly feel, which again steals some of the heartwarming appeal of the design away from the film’s look.  In addition, Howard also frames the story in a weird way, using numerous Dutch angles and in-your-face close-ups.  It’s the kind of off kilter directorial choices that you would expect in a slasher movie and not in a family friendly Christmas film like this.  Howard’s tonal control is also off too, with wacky hi-jinks abruptly undercutting moments that were meant to be touching.  Jim Carrey’s unsubtle performance doesn’t help much either, with the Grinch’s moment of clarity near the end being undermined by an out of place wacky reaction to the character’s heart growing three sizes.   It’s one baffling bad film-making decision after another and it overall adds to a thoroughly unpleasant cinematic experience.

Though many other Christmas movies have done worse, this one feels like the biggest betrayal of them all due to the talent behind it and the way it completely trashes the classics that came before.  The Grinch is a bad Christmas experience on an epic scale.  Thankfully, it didn’t tarnish it’s creators completely.  Ron Howard would win an Academy Award for his very next film, the Best Picture winning A Beautiful Mind (2001), and deservedly so.  Rick Baker continues to be a legend in the make-up effects community.  And Jim Carrey would go on to make more hits like Bruce Almighty (2003) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), though not with the same consistency he did prior to The Grinch.  Both Howard and Carrey themselves have also dismissed the movie publicly too, showing that they both recognize it as a less than positive addition to their resumes.  Sadly, the film still endures and is continually presented to us again whenever the holidays are around.  Universal has shamelessly turned it into a cash cow, making money off the merchandise and home video sales whenever the holidays come around.  And it’s that crass commercialism behind the movie today that is the biggest betrayal to Dr. Seuss’ story.  What he wanted to tell us with his original Grinch was that we don’t need all the gifts and traditions to enjoy the holidays; all we need in the end is each other and the desire to do good deeds.  Somehow, this Grinch has fooled us into believing that it’s an essential holiday classic despite the fact that it doesn’t earn any of that respect.  If you want to enjoy Seuss’ tale the right way, read the original book or watch the delightful Chuck Jones adaptation.  This big budget mess will only leave a bad taste in your mouth like a spoiled can of Who Hash.