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Movie Review

BY THE BOOK: In 1957, Theodor S. Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) wrote How the Grinch Stole Christmas, a children’s book about a reclusive, yule-loathing creature as green as a crab apple and twice as sour. Atop an icy mountain, the Grinch would pout and seethe at the jubilant inhabitants of Whoville below. A Grinchly Christmas tradition. But one year the wuzzles, farflooters and roast beast all got to be too much for him and the Grinch decided to invade Whoville as an anti-Santa bent on pilfering every sign and symbol of holiday cheer. Of course, it was the innocence of a child, little Cindy Lou Who (who was no more than two), and the non-commercial community of Whoville that pumped up the Grinch’s heart and turned that fuzzy curmudgeon into a roast beast-carving party animal.

ON THE TUBE: Dr. Seuss’ tale was such a hit that it became a television special in 1966. The 30-minute classic, full of Geisel’s signature illustrations and nonsensical rhymes, has become a seasonal family favorite along with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. The animated version was directed by Chuck Jones (whose 60-year career featured countless Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry cartoons), narrated by 1930s horror icon Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Mummy) and features contagious songs such as "You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" (sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, probably best known as the voice of Tony the Tiger). Who didn't grow up watching The Grinch? Here in the United States it has become an annual rite of passage as parents introduce their children to that creepy green dude whose heart grows ten sizes overnight and proves that no one is beyond redemption.

THE GRINCH GOES HOLLYWOOD: That built-in audience for a live-action Grinch is one of the reasons studios have been wrangling for the film rights for years. Universal won. And boy did it win! The Grinch earned $55 million opening weekend. Rumored to have cost upwards of $120 million to produce, this latest incarnation of Dr. Seuss’ time-honored tale spends more time expanding on the traditional story than actually telling it. The scheming Grinch’s familiar plot to undermine Christmas in Whoville serves as the final third of Ron Howard’s film. The first two thirds putter around Whoville, explain how The Grinch blew into town and grew so bitter, and basically give manic star Jim Carrey a chance to rant and rave beneath hideous makeup. In this version, Cindy Lou is more than two. In fact, she’s closer to six, which allowed the filmmakers to expand her role as well. The result is a sugared-up mixture of nostalgia and modern pop culture references set against a gaudy, occasionally creepy backdrop.

positive elements: A young girl believes the best of a social outcast, inspiring the residents of Whoville to not only invite the miserly Grinch to their celebration, but to make him honorary Cheer-meister. Instead of simply buying into local lore, Cindy Lou seeks to understand the nasty ol’ Grinch (her research reveals that childhood persecution contributed to the creature’s antisocial personality). When her kindness appears to have backfired, her faithful dad publicly expresses his pride in her just the same. The Grinch’s change of heart reminds viewers that even the hardest heart can be redeemed by love. The Grinch reluctantly does the right thing by rescuing Cindy Lou from a frightening fate. The concluding message is that the real meaning of Christmas can’t be found in materialism, however ...

spiritual content: Despite Cindy Lou’s search for the true meaning of Christmas, she and the storytellers miss the "Hope Diamond" and settle for a "cubic zirconium." Sure, kindness and community are better than coldhearted commercialism, but that still misses the point, which is Jesus’ birth. There’s no mention of worship or church in this Christmas story. The warm fuzzies are all well and good, but once the Whos tire of joining hands around their enormous Christmas tree and singing in unison, the Christ child will have no place in their celebration. It’s a sad omission that has cheapened this otherwise noble story since the beginning.

sexual content: The Grinch is thrown headlong into the shapely Martha May Whovier and lands with his face buried in her cleavage. A subtle line suggests marital infidelity between a woman and her boss.

violent content: Many gags involve prankishness, mischief or flat-out vandalism. Physical humor aside, violence is less of an issue than disrespect, the destruction of property and several scenes that could frighten young children (such as when Cindy Lou falls head-first into a sorting machine).

crude or profane language: The Grinch uses the expression, bitchin'. He grabs mistletoe, waves it over his backside and shouts, "Pucker up and kiss it, Whoville!"

drug or alcohol use: A swig of alcohol serves as fuel for a fire when The Grinch personally blowtorches a Christmas tree.

other negative elements: The Grinch lies to Cindy Lou. He eats broken glass, mugs a yodeler, shaves off the mayor’s hair and belches green fumes into a man’s face. Based on the way he mistreats his canine sidekick, Max, The Grinch may get a visit from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. In his sleep, the Mayor kisses Max on the rear end. During the song, "You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," the line "you’ve got termites in your smile" gets extremely gross as the camera closes in on a bug-infested grin. And as the title suggests, he’s a vengeful thief.

conclusion: Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas definitely has its moments. It’s fun to see classic cartoon bits replicated so faithfully with real actors (such as when the Grinch sneaks across the floor horizontally on fingertips and tiptoes). And just as Jim Carrey’s unbridled shenanigans threaten to push this overstuffed sleigh of a movie past the brink, Anthony Hopkins’ soothing narration reins it in nicely. If only the "new material" weren’t so distracting.

The back story is occasionally interesting, but much of the information gleaned about the Grinch is dreary rather than uplifting. Like the song says, he’s "a mean one," which gets tiresome here because it’s drawn out over more than 90 minutes before he has his life-changing epiphany. Meanwhile, his cave is neo-Oscar the Grouch ("One man’s toxic sludge is another man’s potpourri," he explains as he sifts through Who garbage for home decorating ideas). A flashback of The Grinch in grade school makes him look like a spray-painted Eddie Munster having a bad hair day. All in all, it was just a little too reminiscent of Tim Burton’s work to earn an enthusiastic recommendation for families with young children.

Having said that, teens should have no trouble with the film’s tone or its content. Dr. Seuss’ widow, 79-year-old Audrey Geisel, reportedly sent the script back several times before granting her approval. "There were too many bathroom jokes," she told Newsweek. Good for her. This live-action Grinch is better for her involvement. And as Jim Carrey pictures go, it’s downright wholesome. Still, it earned its PG rating for elements that will have many adults scratching their heads, wondering if it was all really necessary.

special DVD features: The biggest theatrical hit of the 2000 holiday season boasts more than a dozen "special features" on DVD, but don’t expect hours and hours of rewatchable fun. Sure, it’s interesting to peek in on Charles Croughwell’s "Who School" and see layers of Rick Baker’s latex makeup being applied to the cast. But the behind-the-scenes featurettes average a scant six minutes each, looking more impressive bulleted on the box cover than they do on the screen. The three-minute gag reel of bumbles, miscues, blown lines and playfulness isn’t nearly as much fun as it should be considering there’s so much of Jim Carrey, who was hilarious during the end credits of Liar Liar (this particular feature also includes a mild profanity that may take parents by surprise). And instead of a commentary track with director Ron Howard or producer Brian Grazer (there’s no commentary at all), we get a Wholiday Recipe for onion sandwiches and shameless commercials for Universal’s theme parks hiding under the heading "The Grinch’s Special Offer." Not the kind of bonuses likely to satisfy true videophiles.

The "Max’s Playhouse" area should be good for about 30 minutes of enjoyment by 5- to 10-year-olds. "Dress the Grinch" is the DVD equivalent of paper dolls as children can put the green guy in doctor’s duds, lederhosen, pajamas, etc. "Rhyme Time" lets children fill in the blanks of four rhymes from the story by choosing a pair of words from an adjacent list. However, with the exception of a read-along storybook, they’re not the kind of activities most kids will return to more than once.

Beyond seeing director Ron Howard done up as the Grinch, this DVD’s most memorable element is its 10-minute look at the film’s visual effects work. With over 600 effects shots accounting for 43 minutes of screen time, there’s a lot to talk about. And it’s fascinating. From the opening title sequence (featuring a world within a single snowflake) to clever tricks of the trade, it’s the strongest of all of the bonus materials. There’s also a terrific DVS (Descriptive Video Service) component that offers blind or visually impaired viewers narrated descriptions of key visual elements. A nice touch. But with those exceptions, The Grinch’s special features are more Ho-Hum than Ho-Ho-Ho.

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