An almost-unwatchable disaster turns 20.
Note: an abridged version of this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Nostalgia rehabilitates all. There will be those of you who see that Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas turns 20 today and shall immediately wax breathlessly about how it was your childhood and Jim Carrey was so good and it’s a classic IT’S JUST A CLASSIC ALRIGHT. I get it. You’re reading the words of someone who has spent much of the last two months in a cocoon of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and a Spongebob Squarepants boxset, trying desperately to regress back to the comforting happiness and naivety of being 9 years old. We retreat to childhood cornerstones for solace and familiarity when this world gets scary and unfair (and boy has it been scary and unfair this year). Jim Carrey’s been getting that Eddie Murphy image-rehabilitation comeback recently; deservedly so since he was one of the most gifted comic talents to ever do it (questionable personal views and behaviour aside). And two years ago, Illumination slapped a coat of Grinch paint over their rusted Despicable Me jalopy for a film so thoroughly bland the sole memory I have of it was the random BROCKHAMPTON needle-drop.
So, I get it. I get the desire to rehabilitate a film that, whilst commercially the biggest of 2000, sharply divided critics and has been contentious as hell for two decades. Hell, even I’m guilty of it! In that very Illumination review, I said “in a perverse way, I actually sort of prefer the Howard version because at least that demonstrated ambition…” But re-watching Grinch 2000 for the first time in nearly half-a-decade, I found myself frequently exclaiming at the unmitigated disaster that was unfolding before me. It wasn’t that Grinch 2000 is Bad, Actually – that’s been known to me for a while, my childhood wasn’t being freshly destroyed – but that it was somehow so much worse than even my least charitable estimations because Ron Howard and Brian Grazer seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the entire appeal of Dr. Seuss. To cut straight to the heart of it, Seuss’ Grinch tale is mischievous but sincere and has a soft heart, which makes sense given that it’s a children’s morality play. Howard’s Grinch, by contrast, is… mean. Frequently, unashamedly, spitefully mean in a manner that’s endemic of late-90s blockbuster synergistic excess and poisonous cynicism.
That’s reflective of the initial pitch process. Howard, whilst a fan of the classic Chuck Jones animated special from 1966, had no interest in making a Grinch movie until his Imagine Entertainment partner Grazer called, begging him to help secure the rights from Seuss’ widow Audrey Geisel following Grazer’s botched first pitch during the late-‘98 industry-wide free-for-all scrap over them. (Geisel’s terms in addition to a quality pitch: a flat $5 million fee, 4% of box office, 50% of merchandising, directors and writers who had earned at least $1 million on a previous film, and to play The Grinch an actor “of comparable stature to Jack Nicholson, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman.”) On the flight over, Howard was the one who zeroed in on the story’s anti-materialism undertones and made the decision to depict the Whos as blindly consumerist, with Cindy-Lou as both the heart of the story and the lone voice of anti-commercialist reason. Grazer, meanwhile, could get Jim Carrey and Geisel “liked the grown-up Opie.”
The sui generis of Grinch 2000’s borderline-repellent tone and abysmal creative decisions all stem from that initial pitch. In essence, Howard and Grazer envisioned a Grinch movie that was also a Lorax movie despite the two works being almost at total odds with one another in every conceivable fashion. Outside of Cindy-Lou, the Grinch is arguably the most sympathetic character in the whole movie thanks to both the Whos’ new self-absorbed shrill characterisations and his semi-tragic backstory of a bullied outsider rejected by a cruel society of jerks because of his looks. He gets a rant at the film’s midpoint where, after being reminded of his past trauma from the town’s denizens, he correctly rails against their selfish materialism and conflation of Christmas with mindless consumerism that has big “Worst Person You Know Just Made a Great Point” energy. And since the Grinch’s trauma is so real in a world that’s otherwise one-dimensional caricature (even Cindy-Lou is an exhausting precocious child-type), his tormenting of the Whos and grand masterplan of revenge are just hollow and dispiriting; a film of mean people all being mean to each other.
The Whoville of Howard’s Grinch has more in common with Derry, Maine and so turns Seuss’ story turns into an antagonist vs. antagonist affair where not only is neither side all that fun to watch, but it’s also one where all potential emotional catharsis and growth ends up completely butchered. The Whos get the Grinch’s old moral, an understanding that Christmas is about loving each other rather than material goods, but the film doesn’t actually put the legwork in to sell it, whilst The Grinch himself still undergoes that lesson as the catalyst for his heart growing despite his arc here instead being about opening up to the possibility of love again (the appearance and saving of Cindy-Lou comes after his change of heart). It’s so needlessly complicated and ineffectual, all for the sake of a blunt yet utterly toothless anti-consumerism tract that buries the soul of Seuss’ work and doesn’t hold together anyway.
You can even see that fundamental misunderstanding of the material occur in the visual filmmaking. This is one horrible movie to look at. Whoville’s a tacky funhouse nightmare, one that more resembles the twisted theme-park version of itself than a fantastical village. The Whos themselves are even worse; master make-up designer Rick Baker contorting nearly all of the performers’ faces so that their reddened noses stick upwards and they gain bucked teeth, making them all rat-like and inhuman. A sickening green visual filter causes everything to look washed-out and grim, more representative of a Christmas in Scunthorpe than a Christmas in Whoville. There is an illegal percentage of Dutch angles in this thing, damn-near every single shot is some degree of off-centre. The camera swings around these sets, futzing with perspective as Howard and famed cinematographer Donald Peterman (in his retirement film) try their hackiest dime-store Tim Burton impression. Most of these design choices would work if solely applied to the Grinch and his lair in Mt. Crumpit, contrasting him with the Whos to reinforce his outsider status, but they’re not, so the Grinch doesn’t contrast with anything and the entire world of the film feels wrong as a result.
It’s just all so garish, grotesque, and cynical in the way that’s endemic of blockbusters made around this time. Visually unappealing. Outwardly mean in its treatment of many of its characters and borderline disdainful of sincerity. Every aspect feels tailor-made to sell something as an accessory, right down to the incongruous insertion of Smash Mouth onto the soundtrack to plug some CDs and a blatant awards bait number badly-sung. Most of the jokes are just crass and ill-fitting. Geisel supposedly vetoed many of the more scatological and adult ones in the original screenplay but, if that were the case, I would love to know what was somehow too much for a Seuss movie with key parties, dog rimjobs, and this ceaseless horniness from all of the female characters (naturally chased down with a dollop of casual sexism cos 90s family blockbuster).
Canonically, this Grinch fucks, or at the very least wants to fucks and is clearly going to fucks Christine Baranski after the credits roll. This is info I share with you to maliciously spread my suffering around, like the cursed Ringu tape except with the Grinch and Christine Baranski making horny eyes at each other. WHY IS EVERYONE SO GODDAMNED HORNY?!
The lone positive in a movie where almost every single creative decision simply does not work is, unsurprisingly, Jim Carrey’s performance. Even then, it’s not so much his performance as his utter commitment to being, to use 2020 parlance, deliriously extra all the time. Howard, in his one wise move, gives Carrey a leash so long it can take chartered flights to Siberia and he mugs, contorts, yells, dances, springs, flings, hops, and generally cavorts about the scenery he is otherwise dining on with such relish you can see fresh fragments dug in his molars mid-scene. The drawback, of course, is that Carrey completely stamps out the last vestiges of a chance for the Grinch’s revelation at the climax to carry any emotional weight by refusing to tone his schtick down even a percentile. The positive is that Carrey is in full Ace Ventura mode, pure schtick but undeniably compelling schtick, where his unconventional line deliveries are capable of wringing chuckles out of material otherwise D.O.A. and his improv ends up better than the crap plastered on-page. (The film’s funniest scene, where the Grinch consults his schedule, is all improv.) Even if it’s maybe not technically a good performance, it is at least a likeable one occurring in one of those star vehicles where the main performance is meant to be the lasting impression above almost all else.
So, to circle back, I would like to stress that I get it. I get the inclination to rehabilitate this one. I get wanting to add it to Carrey’s list of great turns. I get why there are those out there who try reading it as a work of subversive Marxist genius. I get that any Seuss adaptation which isn’t a half-hour TV special is going to have to complicate the charming simplicity of his books (though Netflix’s Green Eggs and Ham has surprisingly demonstrated that it’s not inherently a negative to do so). And I get that there’s also the abominable 2003 Cat in the Hat movie – which takes everything wrong with Howard’s Grinch, replicates it fortyfold, and spikes it for the unwatchable touchdown – making this look better in comparison by simple virtue of not being that.
But I just can’t, folks. I tried, but Howard’s Grinch is an almost-unwatchable disaster on all fronts. So charmless, so witless, so hideous, so lacking in empathy, so antithetical to the values of both its source material and the season it’s supposed to be a celebration of. It’s not even the best Seuss movie starring Jim Carrey! This should’ve been a career-ender for everybody involved; that would’ve at least saved us from both Cat in the Hat and the next two terrible decades of Howard’s directorial career. Instead, money talks and nostalgia rehabilitates all.
Callum Petch make a man’s heart stop with a wink and a smile.