You don’t have to have a heart two sizes too small to recoil from the new live-action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. What began life as a brief, elegant little work by the children’s-book master Dr. Seuss — and went on, nine years after its publication, to become a beloved Dr. Seuss/Chuck Jones TV perennial — is now a jumbled mess, art-directed to within an inch of its life, a folly to put alongside previous Christmas turkeys like Hook and Santa Claus: The Movie. Not since Battlefield Earth (admittedly, a much worse film) have so much effort and design gone into something so … tacky.
Boris Karloff narrated the 1966 cartoon, so it must have made sense to hire another movie boogeyman, Anthony Hopkins, to preside over the new film. Sounding remote and bored, Hopkins tells us about a place — Whoville — that exists inside a snowflake, and thanks to computer animation, we zoom right into that snowflake and into a panoramic view of Whoville in one unbroken shot, like a vision of smallness and largeness all at once. This should feel thrilling and magical, but, like so much else in the film, it’s so slick and artificial that you respond to it as a jaded connoisseur of special effects. (It’s also, of late, an overdone effect — it’s basically the kiddie-flick version of the opening shot of Fight Club.)
We skim over the Whos of Whoville; they include vibrant actors like Molly Shannon, Jeffrey Tambor, and Christine Baranski, smothered in pug-nose latex that throws their faces out of whack, like Jack Nicholson’s fake shnoz in Hoffa. One of them, a little girl named Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen), is uncomfortable with the rampant consumerism of Whoville and also can’t understand why everyone in town is terrified of one figure — a hermit living on a mountaintop on the outskirts of Whoville, called the Grinch, who hates Christmas, Whoville, and Who-manity in general. Given the obnoxiousness of the shopaholic Whos, I can’t blame him.
Unless you’ve been living on a mountaintop yourself, you’ve heard that Jim Carrey plays the Grinch — “a role he was born to play,” we’ve been assured. I’m not so sure. Carrey gives it his all, and beneath Rick Baker’s supple make-up he manages to project his personality. That’s the problem. How the Grinch Stole Christmas unavoidably becomes a Jim Carrey vehicle, a cluttered stage upon which he can prance, pout, preen, and gnaw large holes through the scenery, inexhaustible and, finally, exhausting. He’s an ingenious comic actor — I thought he was robbed of an Oscar for Man on the Moon — but Carrey, with the help of an overexplicit script by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), gives the Grinch a neurotic, nobody-loves-me pathos that doesn’t quite fit. The Grinch shouldn’t have issues, for God’s sake — he’s just the Grinch, a Seussian Scrooge who’s just mean because … well, as Seuss said, “No one quite knows the reason.”
We find out the reason, all right; in flashbacks, we see poor little Grinch as a misfit child, ignored by the girl he loves. And Cindy Lou Who is certain the Grinch could learn to be kind if kindness were only shown to him. So we get an awkward sequence in which the Grinch is elected the town’s Cheermeister, which, like most of the scenes, has no beginning or end; it just arrives, putters around, and peters out. (The new subplots tacked onto Seuss’ original, far simpler tale add nothing but flab.) This is not director Ron Howard’s finest hour; he seems so in awe of the elaborate sets and the elaborate stylings of his star that he hardly bothers to shape the scenes — he must have figured Carrey and the set design would do his work for him.
Well, they did, and not to the movie’s benefit. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a garish rummage sale, in which Hollywood’s great Tasmanian Devil Jim Carrey must suffer the ultimate indignity: not the painful latex, not the crude slapstick, but the plot that requires him to learn to feel. If he isn’t careful he’ll turn into Robin Williams, who has gotten in touch with his emotions in so many movies that his emotions should really slap a restraining order on him. Comedians used to want to play Hamlet; now they want to be therapists. And the movie’s moral (Christmas is about more than presents) would mean more if we didn’t know that store shelves will be packed with Grinch merchandise from now till December 26.