[Screen It]

(2000) (Jim Carrey, Taylor Momsen) (PG)

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Comedy: In this live-action update of the classic Dr. Seuss story and TV cartoon, the Grinch hopes to ruin the Christmas spirit of the citizens of Whoville.
High atop Mt. Crumpit lives The Grinch (JIM CARREY), a surly curmudgeon who hates Christmas and the people of Whoville who live in the valley below him and so thoroughly enjoy the season. Among them is young Cindy Lou Who (TAYLOR MOMSEN) who's seemingly the only one to question the real meaning of Christmas; her postmaster father, Lou (BILL IRWIN); and her mother, Betty (MOLLY SHANNON), who's determined to beat their neighbor, Martha May Whovier (CHRISTINE BARANSKI), in a lighting decoration contest.

Donning a disguise and infiltrating Whoville, the Grinch - who's happy that his heart is two times too small and shrinking - tries to disrupt the holiday festivities - much to the chagrin of Mayor May Who (JEFFREY TAMBOR) - but the townspeople's spirits are inextinguishable. What he does accomplish, however, is the sparking of curiosity in Cindy Lou about him. Interviewing the locals, she soon discovers the history of the Grinch and why he hates Christmas so much.

Back atop Mt. Crumpit and with only hours before Christmas, the Grinch is becoming increasingly agitated at the music and good cheer rising up from Whoville. As such, he concocts a plan to steal Christmas and thus, with the aide of his canine companion, Max, he sets out to do just that, hoping that once and for all he'll rid the town of its Christmas spirit.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
For most kids who celebrate Christmas, there's no more favorite time of the year. Religious observances aside and notwithstanding the warm weather, long days and lack of school that summer provides, there's something special and magical about the end of December. Decorations and good cheer are plentiful and one obviously can't overlook the presents.

When I was growing up - in the days before home video, cable, the Internet and video games - that time of year also meant the return of some much beloved holiday TV shows. While Rudolph, Charlie Brown and Frosty certainly held their own (not to mention the sight of Santa riding an electric razor through the snow in those Norelco ads), my favorite - along with probably most every other kid and every adult with some kid left in them - was The Grinch.

Debuting in 1966 and directed by legendary animator/director Chuck Jones (the man behind many of the Looney Tunes cartoons) and narrated by none other than Boris "Frankenstein" Karloff, the animated short was, and still is, a wickedly fun and funny adaptation of the children's rhyming story, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" by Theodor S. Geisel a.k.a. Dr. Seuss.

Although I've seen it countless times, it's still quite entertaining and enjoyable to watch and is now as much a holiday tradition as Christmas trees, eggnog and fruitcake. Thus, the thought of someone turning Dr. Seuss' classic tale into a full length, live-action film drummed up feelings of cinematic heresy. After all, Geisel and then his widow repeatedly turned down offers from filmmakers over the years to bring The Grinch to the silver screen perhaps because they, like most everyone with a grain of common sense, knew that it's pointless to attempt to improve upon perfection.

That said, if anyone was going to have a chance to pull it off, one could imagine a worse combination than Ron Howard directing Jim Carrey in the title role. That's because Howard has a good track record of making decent and often great films like "Apollo 13" and "Cocoon," while Carrey ("Man on the Moon," "The Truman Show") - the rubbery faced and bodied one - seems like one of the few actors who could pull off the physical and comedic demands of the character.

Thus, although I wasn't crazy about the prospect, I decided to give the adaptation the benefit of the doubt and go into the screening with at least a mostly open mind. While I can happily report that Carrey is often a hoot as the Grinch (as long as you don't mind the typical Carrey-isms of exaggerated facial and bodily contortions and such humor), and the makeup effects, courtesy of Rick Baker ("Men in Black," "An American Werewolf in London"), visual effects supervised by Kevin Mack ("What Dreams May Come," "Fight Club") and production design by Michael Corenblith ("Apollo 13," "Mighty Joe Young") are all topnotch, the film as a whole is only half satisfying.

The reason I say that is because of the "kids in the candy store" problem that's previously afflicted films such as "1941" and "Hook." They're the type that often exude that feeling of watching kids running amok in a candy store where all of the treats and goodies are too overwhelming for the talent to resist.

As a result, many parts of this film, like those others, go too far over the top in an exuberant but careless "Let's do this next cuz it will be really funny" fashion that unfortunately often seems just excessive rather than funny.

One can imagine hearing the sideshow barker now: "See Jim Carrey ride a miniature car as the Grinch. Watch as he then leaps from it in slow motion as it explodes. See the amazing, green-faced Grinch lead a conga line." To be fair, some of the moments regarding the Grinch's behavior are inspired and/or humorous, but too many of those other moments lessen the magical feel the film and its creators were trying to capture.

Fans of the TV cartoon will also probably be disheartened not only to learn that extra material has been added to the story (something of an unavoidable necessity when one considers the need to turn a less than 30-minute story into a feature length one), but also that events have been somewhat altered in the original story that now comprises the film's last third.

While the TV cartoon obviously took artistic license with Seuss' story, it's somewhat of the de facto standard for it now, and the little changes that Howard and screenwriters Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman ("Doc Hollywood," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and most notably script doctors for the "Wild Wild West" fiasco) make here and there, further diminish a positive view of the adaptation.

Beyond Carrey's inspired performance - that could justifiably be faulted by some for occasionally being more Carrey than Seuss -- Taylor Momsen (making her debut) appears as the only other significant "human" character from the cartoon, Cindy Lou Who. While given the appropriate cute looks and mannerisms, Momsen's performance is otherwise unremarkable.

Sir Anthony Hopkins ("Titus," "The Mask of Zorro") gives the film some dignity as the story's occasional narrator and Jeffrey Tambor ("Meet Joe Black," HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show") appropriately plays the town's conceited mayor. Yet, Christine Baranski ("Bowfinger," "Bulworth"), Bill Irwin ("Illuminata," "My Blue Heaven") and Molly Shannon ("Superstar," "Never Been Kissed") can't do much with their sketchily drawn roles.

Although it's not surprising to see Ron Howard's brother Clint show up once again in one of his films, it is surprising that Josh Ryan Evans (who appeared as the diminutive Oren Koolie on several episodes of TV's "Ally McBeal") as the young Grinch in a flashback gives the film's most heartfelt performance. Unfortunately, when it comes to the film's other small performer - in this case, the Grinch's canine companion, Max -- Kelley the dog pales considerably to his cute and adorable cartoon counterpart.

While the fleshed out story the filmmakers surround the original with works from a connective standpoint, and the film excels in a visual sense, it's too bad that not as much creative vigor was injected into the film as a whole and that the over the top scenes somewhat taint the effort. Decent, but clearly not as good, charming or entertaining as the cartoon (and a clear abomination of the universe if this over-produced one replaces it in kids' minds and memories), "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 14, 2000 / Posted November 17, 2000

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