Several times while watching the Ron Howard-directed How the Grinch Stole Christmas, I found myself wondering, “Who is this even for?” At 105 minutes, it’s a bit on the long side for kids small enough to actually enjoy Jim Carrey’s manic, over-the-top turn as the title character, and the whole thing is far too ugly and irritating for older kids, let alone adults. On the other hand, my niece (aged nine) and nephew (aged twelve) have said they love it, and it was released long enough ago that I also have adult friends who remember it fondly. I do know who it’s not for, however, and that is the grumpy old Grinch writing this review.
The first time I found myself questioning the intended audience for this unwatchable mess was early on, when little Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen) has her own plaintive, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” style musical number. The song is in no way memorable or interesting, and it underscores the fatal miscalculations running rampant throughout the production. Obviously a feature film based on a 26-minute cartoon (which was, itself, padded out from a very slim children’s book, albeit with far more charm and wit) is going to need some filler, but did no one involved realize that 80 minutes (with no terrible new songs) would have been plenty?
The other big problem with this version’s portrayal of Cindy Lou (which is also in no way Momsen’s fault) is not so much a problem with her as it is with the rest of the Whos, namely the fact that they’re a bunch of hideous rat-monsters. The Oscar-winning makeup effects by the legendary Rick Baker are impressively seamless, but Baker is best at creating monstrosities, like the werewolves of The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, or the alternate-universe Eddie Murphies of The Nutty Professor and Norbit. This is not necessarily the guy you go to for cute and cuddly. For whatever reason, Howard and Baker opted to leave Cindy Lou unscathed by the facial prosthetics employed for the rest of the Whos, but this ultimately renders her appearance more distracting than charming, and underscores the repulsiveness of the others.
The Grinch himself is a bit more in Baker’s wheelhouse, but even here the question is apparent: why try to recreate the look and feel of a Chuck Jones cartoon when the Chuck Jones cartoon was already perfect? It could be worthwhile to riff on it in the same creatively subversive way Joe Dante did the Looney Tunes universe in his masterpiece, Gremlins 2: The New Batch (or even the underrated Looney Tunes: Back in Action), but this is just a soulless, painfully unfunny retread, padded out with abysmal, seemingly interminable, and entirely gratuitous backstory. You see, this Grinch is a Smeagol/Gollum-like creation, driven to his present garbage-monster status by the cruelty of the Whos themselves, which, coupled with the horrendous character designs, make one sort of inclined to root for the Grinch. Or it would, if the Grinch himself weren’t so aggressively off-putting.
Make no mistake, this is Carrey at his most frenetically unlikeable, a performance for those who found his turn as the Riddler in Batman Forever too subtle and cerebral (beginning with The Mask in 1994, this could be viewed as the long-awaited end of Carrey’s “Green Trilogy,” and the absolute nadir of same). I was 16 or 17 years old when this movie was filming, and nowhere near the set, but I’m pretty sure the only direction Howard could have possibly given Carrey throughout the shoot was a passionately shouted “MORE!!!” Possibly while throwing cocaine at him like Frank Costello in The Departed.
This is not a case of mere disappointment on my part, or undue reverence toward a classic; I’m certainly a fan of the original Chuck Jones version, and my expectations for this one had been suitably lowered by its reputation long before finally checking it out for myself, but nothing could have prepared me for how relentlessly unappealing and charmless this movie is. The only bright spots are lifted directly from Jones’s version, then promptly ruined and served up like a “delicious” meal made from the remains of a cherished family pet accidentally run over in the driveway.
But, as previously stated, my beloved niece and nephew adamantly prefer this version, and I must do my best to maintain some sort of faith in the nation’s youth in spite of that fact.