Christmas has a number of characters that instantly come to mind at the mere mention of the holiday. The big man, good old S. Claus, is likely number one. Whether you know him as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, or something else, Santa Claus has dominated the holiday for decades now. Other characters commonly associated with the holiday include Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf, Macaulay Culkin, and some guy named Jesus. Another big one has to be the greenest, and I don’t mean Shrek. The Grinch has been a holiday mainstay for over 50 years. He originate in the world of print and came from the mind of one Theodor Geisel, better known to the world as Dr. Seuss. Nearly a decade after the success of the original 1957 book came the television special in 1966 which was hugely successful. It made the Grinch a household name and a sought after network special each year.
As is often the case, when something finds success in print or on television Hollywood takes notice. We now have two feature films based on the story of a thieving Christmas villain: the 2000 Jim Carrey vehicle and the 2018 animated film known simply as The Grinch. The character of the Grinch was also popular enough to show up in other books by Seuss and there was even an attempt to make him an icon of Halloween. With all of this Grinch going around it’s hard to know what’s worthwhile and what’s not. And with the holiday season now essentially halfway complete, there’s not a lot of time to get your Grinch fix in 2019.
A few years ago, I declared How the Grinch Stole Christmas as the best Christmas television special ever. In reviewing that 25 day countdown I see a lot of room for omissions and admissions, but I’ve never wavered on number one. The Grinch is the be all, end all, Christmas special. It looks terrific, features great performances, and also has a memorable song. It’s recommended viewing for this Christmas and every Christmas to come. If you have yet to view it in 2019 then get on that! I watch it multiple times every year and wouldn’t have it any other way.
That television special is the best, but what of the other Grinch media? Should you bother with any of it? The book requires little investment in both time and money, but the films are a different beast all together. With each minute of Christmas time precious, and the films made readily, and tantalizingly, available either on cable or via streaming it can be hard to figure out. Well, I’m here to help set you straight and let you know if these things are worth your time or not. Because I value my own personal time so little, I’ve recently taken in all of these things and am prepared to render a verdict.
Let’s start with that 1957 book. The Grinch was a unique character when he arrived. Dr. Seuss had never made an adult the main character of one of his stories, and certainly had never centered one on a villain. Titled How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, it was written and illustrated by Seuss and while it spans 69 pages (nice) it hardly requires much time to read through as pages often consist of just a few sentences and many just artwork. It’s presented in black, white, and red which is interesting considering how the character of the Grinch is now often associated with the color green. I wish I had encountered the book before the television special just so I could have been shocked to see him surface in green. Would I have assumed he was a different color, and what color would that have been? Those are questions I can’t even ask let alone answer.
The story is largely the same as the animated special, just less. There’s obviously no music, and some lines you may recall fondly from the special aren’t present. It’s fun to read though because of the way Seuss rhymes. His books always have a playful rhythm and I rarely tire of reading them to my own children. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is no exception, and if you enjoy the television special then you should own a copy of the book as well, especially if you have kids. In my house, it can be hard to get them to request something other than this book before bed when the Christmas season comes to an end. I don’t really mind, but my wife sure does.
The book is an easy recommend, but the films present a much more difficult challenge. Let’s start with that 2000 film directed by Ron Howard, shall we? It was an interesting time as Dr. Seuss stories had never been adapted for live-action before. That’s because Dr. Seuss had refused all of Hollywood’s temptations. By 1998 though the Dr. himself was long gone, but his widow Audrey was around and willing to listen as long as the price was right. She supposedly handpicked Howard to direct the picture after he delivered a pitch for a film he had no intention of directing and wouldn’t agree to any other director. The studio settled on Carrey for the titular role with some influence of Geisel, while the role of Cindy Lou went to the young Taylor Momsen. The cast also featured a few other names of the era such as Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski, and Molly Shannon. Audrey Geisel had a lot of demands of the film, and the acquisition of the film rights lead to a bidding war in which studios basically had to line-up famous individuals to deliver the pitch to Geisel personally. It’s hard not to conjure up images of Geisel seated on a Seuss-ian throne high above network executives feigning disinterest as they frantically try to pitch her on an idea for a movie.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas was tasked with adapting the book and television special authentically, while also stretching it out to a feature length. The TV special was able to adapt the book by filling it with musical bits, but that only filled about 25 minutes. It already felt stretched as far as it could go, so in order for the film to do the same it needed to focus on elements the prior versions ignored. Namely, it needed to explore the main character and why he hates Christmas. Howard also wanted to expand upon the character of Cindy Lou Who and the denizens of Whoville and in order to do so he felt the character needed to be aged-up from 2 to 6. In order to make the Grinch hate Christmas, Howard settled on making him bullied as a child. He looks nothing like the other Whos, so he was an easy target for bullies. He tries to win the affections of a classmate at Christmas time who seems to also have feelings for him, but when he cuts himself trying to shave off his green beard the other kids mock him mercilessly. It corresponds with him wanting to present his crush with a Christmas gift, but when the other kids make fun of him he decides to instead smash the gift and direct his ire at the holiday itself.
Cindy Lou Who learns of this origin story for the Grinch and decides to make things better for him. She nominates him for an ambassador-like position at Christmas. The Grinch does not have any interest, but his old crush and rivals will be present and that’s enough to get him involved. The other Whos are not really keen on the idea. When he shows up for the festival, the mayor mocks him by gifting him an electric shaver and the resulting humiliation is what spurs the Grinch on to carry out his plan to steal Christmas.
When this film premiered, I attended with my family even though I had long since aged-out of the tradition of heading to the movies with my parents. It was probably the last film we saw as a family until one of the Lord of the Rings films when I was home from college. For some reason, my dad was really geared-up to see this one even though I can’t recall him ever displaying any affection towards the television special. He would watch it with us, but I just assumed he was being nice. At any rate, we saw it and I think we kind of liked it? I’m not real sure, but I know it never became an annual holiday tradition in my household in the years that followed. The changes made to the plot are mostly okay. They’re there out of necessity, even if they’re not all that interesting. Does the Grinch need sympathy? Howard seemed to think so and it’s certainly an easier path to take, but part of the original story was we didn’t know why he hated Christmas and it didn’t matter. “Whatever the reason, his heart or his shoes…” goes the famous line, and it’s not even confirmed his heart was the issue as it’s basically just how the account from Whoville has carried on through the years.
At any rate, Jim Carrey approaches the character like he did all of his screwball characters from the 90s. He’s loud, obnoxious, and speaks with a goofy voice. The move to live-action is actually not terrible. Yeah, he has these weird, hairy, Grinch-boobs, but he largely looks the part. He’s way less horrifying than Mike Myers’ Cat in the Hat, anyway. Whoville though looks terrible. It’s like a scene from a mall Santa experience. It’s fake, and lacks the Seuss charm. The Whos look like a race of people descended from the transformed kid in Jumanji with these weird, anime, noses. By the time the film gets to the stealing part I’ve grown tired of Carrey’s Grinch. It’s just too much, and it doesn’t help that the soundtrack sucks. By the time the film concludes with Grinch’s redemption (he even gets the girl!) I am way past checked-out and just happy to see the credits role, even if they’re accompanied by an awful Faith Hill song.
If you can’t tell, I’m not digging on the Carrey Grinch. That’s a film worth passing on. The more intriguing one is the more recently released The Grinch. It was originally slated for 2017, but delays pushed it to November 2018. Christmas movies being what they are, any small delay in production results in basically a year long delay in the release cycle so it’s hard to say just how much re-tooling the film needed without being a part of the production staff. Even knowing that, it’s always alarming when a film gets bumped so severely and rarely does it seem the end result pays off. Recently, X-Men: Dark Phoenix saw a delay and the end-result was pretty lackluster. Given the quality of the previous film, Apocalypse, I’m not sure if that one really had a chance. One of the latest examples, and still an open item, is Sonic the Hedgehog which got bumped out of a 2019 release and into 2020 when the Internet collectively sneered at Sonic’s appearance in the initial trailer.
The Grinch is an Illumination’s production following 2012’s Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. Animation feels like the proper vehicle for Seuss adaptations, and this being 2018, CG is going to be the medium. Benedict Cumberbatch stars this time around with support from Keenan Thompson, Rashida Jones, Angela Lansbury, Pharrell Williams, and Cameron Seely as Cindy Lou Who, once again a kid instead of a toddler. Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney co-directed this one and they were tasked with once again bringing a pretty brief story to a feature length. Like the 2000 film, this one provides a backstory for why the Grinch hates Christmas and also seeks to make Cindy Lou Who a bigger part of the film. This time around she just wants to make sure her mom, who is a single mother raising three kids, gets what she deserves for Christmas and to do that she enlists the help of the neighborhood kids to capture Santa on Christmas Eve. This naturally sets up a confrontation with a thieving Grinch who grew to hate Christmas because, as an orphan, he grew to resent the holiday when kids with families had a good time but he did not.
Cumberbatch uses an American accent when voicing the Grinch and his version of the character is in-line with the Boris Karloff and Jim Carrey versions in that they speak in almost a thin growl. There’s also a nasally quality to the performance, and if I didn’t read the credits I would have sworn that Grinch was being voiced by Bill Hader. This Grinch is not nearly as pompous as Carrey’s, and he’s just a curmudgeon who feels worn down by Christmas. Quite possibly the film’s funniest moment is when Grinch discovers that he’s out of food and a little montage plays showing him stress-eating due to the oncoming holiday. The Grinch does a better job of providing a real personality for the main character without shoe-horning in too much melodrama. I certainly like this character more than I do his other iterations since the film gives me a reason to. Max is along for the ride as well and appropriately adorable.
Whoville is much more enjoyable to look at as well. It’s basically one giant hill that seems to be perpetually covered in snow. Everyone gets around via sled and it looks like a fun place to visit, though totally impractical to reside in. Cindy Lou Who is likeable enough as well, though I found her plight too conventional for a Christmas story to the point that it’s boring. When Grinch isn’t on the screen the picture really struggles to hold my attention.
Which wouldn’t be a huge problem if Grinch could carry his own film. He’s close, and I mentioned he’s likable, but I’m not sure he’s funny. To pad the film we’re shown his plans for stealing Christmas which occur over a few days and include the enlisting of a rather large reindeer named Fred. Fred provides some comedic relief alongside Max especially as he tries to work the gadgets in Grinch’s supervillain-like lair, but he’s not around for very long since Max is destined to pull the Grinch’s sleigh so when he leaves it almost feels like the film just wasted our time.
There’s also the Illumination feel projected onto this story. I don’t detest Illumination or anything, but their films all seem to possess things I do not like. There seems to be a drive by either the production company or parent company to make these films feel modern by using licensed music. This often leads to parody as well which I rarely find funny and only serves to date the films down the road. It’s also how you end up with a hip-hop rendition of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” that just doesn’t work. Grinch’s home also feels too similar to that of Gru from Despicable Me as it’s filled with gadgets and gizmos befitting a mad scientist, though Grinch doesn’t display much aptitude for invention. On the plus side, Danny Elfman handled the film’s score and his style actually works well with a non-creepy Christmas movie. I almost didn’t know it was him until one point in the movie that is unmistakably Elfman.
When it comes to The Grinch, I’m a bit conflicted. It looks fine, and the story is okay, but it didn’t leave me feeling much of anything. I didn’t yearn for the film to end like I did the 2000 film, nor was I hoping it would go on. I also can’t say I have much of a desire to revisit it making me doubt I’ll be adding this to my Christmas rotation. Not that it’s my decision, as my kids seems to enjoy it so I may be stuck with it as long as it’s on Netflix. As long as they don’t refuse to watch the ’67 special, I suppose I can live with it.
Which basically leads us back to where we were for so many years. Growing up, I was content to have my Grinch in book form and cartoon form and I think I’m fine with leaving the character there. I think both films made an honest effort to adapt the venerable story for movie theaters and the steps both took to lengthen the story were logical, just not always entertaining. And now that we have both a live-action film and an animated one, I don’t foresee anyone else attempting to bring the Grinch to the big screen anytime soon. The Grinch ended up making half a billion dollars at the box office so maybe we’re not done with the character and they’ll bring him back in another story, but probably not in a conventional sequel. For now, if you’re looking to welcome the Grinch into your home this holiday season, just stick with the book and Chuck Jones special.