Trouble in Who-ville

Jolly green giant Jim Carrey.

Jolly green giant Jim Carrey.

Rated 3.0

Director Ron Howard’s movie of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas is hard to get too mad at. It’s briskly paced, even when it goes vibrating off in directions the good doctor probably never anticipated. Michael Corenblith’s production design (a glimpse, no doubt, of the next attraction on the Universal Studios tour) has a yummy hard-candy look that cleverly blends Dr. Seuss’ Who-ville with MGM’s Munchkinland. The film’s heart is in the right place, even if—like the Grinch himself—its head isn’t screwed on just right.

The Grinch made his first appearance in Dr. Seuss’ 1957 book, but the version of the story that most people know—certainly the heaviest influence on Howard’s film—is Chuck Jones’ brilliant 1966 animated version. The original story is short and slight; an indulgent parent can read it to the kids in barely 10 minutes. In expanding it to a half-hour (minus commercials), Jones enriched it considerably, inserting visual comedy, supplying character for the dog, Max, and—with Seuss and composer Albert Hague—adding several disarmingly simple songs. The film cannily reproduces all those innovations.

Then, of course, there’s Jim Carrey in the title role—an inspired piece of casting if there ever was one, right up there with Clark Gable as Rhett Butler or Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Unencumbered by Rick Baker’s make up and unintimidated by Kevin Mack’s visual effects, Carrey is as agile and expressive as ever, and his hand-rubbing relish in the role shines through from beginning to end.

The film is at its best when duplicating Jones’ cartoon in minute detail—roughly speaking, in the first 10 minutes, for 10 minutes in the middle and for the last 10 minutes. At the same time, for all its light-heartedness and good intentions, it’s a prime example of exactly what’s wrong with Hollywood: ingenuity without imagination. Chuck Jones’ embellishments to the original book were ingenious, but they were also imaginative, and so exactly right that for 34 years now they’ve been an inseparable part of the story.

But Jones only expanded the story from 10 minutes to about 26. Howard and his writers, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, have to go from 26 minutes to about 100. To do that without dissipating the story’s anecdotal charm would take a lot of imagination—maybe more than Jones had, but certainly more than Howard, Price and Seaman show here.

To pad the story, the filmmakers add some plot threads that must have Dr. Seuss sputtering in his grave. Did you know, for example, that the Grinch hates Christmas because the Whos were mean to him when he was a kid? That the real villain of the story isn’t the Grinch, but the mayor of Who-ville? And here’s a real stunner: The Whos have grown too materialistic, and the Grinch, by stealing all their presents, teaches them a lesson about the true meaning of Christmas (aided by the lethally adorable Taylor Momsen as Cindy Lou Who).

These additions are so blatantly wrong-headed that it’s hard not to see the desperation behind the scenes—“How are we ever going to stretch this out to feature length?” One strategy might have been to make the movie a musical, but that idea is hastily abandoned after a brief, trembly solo by Cindy Lou. No doubt Howard and company consulted their marketing experts and were told that a musical would never sell.

At the end, the film comes coasting back to Seuss-Jones country, just in time to wind things up on a note of familiar holiday cheer. Perhaps the best moment in the whole movie shows Carrey’s Grinch hand-in-hand with the circled Whos, singing that “Vahoo vorays, Dahoo dorays” song from the cartoon, babbling blissfully because he’s singing it for the first time. It’s simultaneously warm and funny, but at the same time, I couldn’t help seeing it as emblematic of Ron Howard and his writers: Like the Grinch at that moment, they’ve got the right spirit, but they’re not sure of the words.