For me, one of the few genuinely enjoyable parts of the festive period is settling down to watch classic Christmas movies. Each December it’s always the same: my viewing schedule begins with The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, followed by Love Actually, The Santa Clause and Die Hard, with Home Alone providing the grand finale on Christmas Eve. Yet one title that’s been conspicuously absent in recent years is Ron Howard’s 2000 adaptation of The Grinch. Once a firm favourite, its mawkish charm evidently didn’t sit well with my teenage self, so was promptly axed from the line-up. This Christmas, however, I decided to exercise some critical goodwill by giving film another chance. While as saccharine as ever, I was nonetheless surprised to find The Grinch remains a remarkably audacious piece of filmmaking.
Based on Dr Seuss’s iconic children’s novel, The Grinch is ostensibly another family film where previously self-centred characters magically rediscover the true meaning of Christmas. Living in the imaginary hamlet of Whoville, young Cindy-Lou Who (Taylor Momsen) finds herself disenchanted by the increasing commercialisation of the holidays. After her father blithely disregards her concerns during a particularly hectic shopping spree, she takes it upon herself to seek out the nefarious Grinch (Jim Carrey), a reclusive cave-dwelling creature who takes nothing to do with the town’s annual festivities. But rather than providing her with the answers she so desperately desires, Cindy-Lou’s visit to the Grinch inadvertently provokes him into hatching a dastardly plan to steal Christmas from the greedy Whos.
Regardless of any criticisms that can be justifiably levelled at The Grinch, there’s no denying the unequivocal brilliance of Jim Carrey’s central performance. While I was always aware he was doing something special, it’s only as an adult that I can fully appreciate just how special it really is. On paper the Grinch is a deeply unpleasant and unsympathetic character, but Carrey’s unique brand of zany humour softens his edges and invites audiences to think differently. Certainly, even when he’s terrorising the citizens of Whoville, assaulting Santa Claus and stealing everyone’s Christmas presents, Carrey pitches his performance so perfectly that actually we to begin dread the moment he’ll leave the screen. I doubt Dr Seuss himself could ever have wished for more impressively realised Grinch.
Almost outshining Carrey is the film’s equally impressive makeup and production design. Again, these are aspects of film that young children largely ignore, but which won’t fail to amaze more mature audiences. The Grinch’s costume, in particular, is a work of art, staying true to the book’s original illustrations while also affording Carrey enough room to freely inhabit the role. Undoubtedly a lot of CGI wizardry went into the creation of Whoville and its inhabitants, but you’d be surprised by just how much was physically created for the film. I remember visiting the Universal Studios back-lot and being shocked to discover that the entire town centre had been constructed to scale and then dusted with gallons of synthetic snow. Such commitment to detail helps make the film all the more believable and has caused it to age surprisingly well.
For all its technical brilliance, however, The Grinch does have some major storytelling problems. Firstly, as mentioned above, the narrative is far too sentimental and hackneyed for audiences over the age of twelve. Cindy-Lou, for example, is played with nausea-inducing innocence and naivety, while I can’t help but feel it’s message of anti-commercialism is tad hypocritical. Secondly, there’s a distinct problem with pacing. Indeed, although it boasts some excellent set pieces and action sequences, each goes on much longer than is really necessary (I’m thinking particularly of the climatic dash to return all of the presents). At a mere sixty-nine pages, the original novel definitely doesn’t warrant nearly two hours of screen time.
These issues aside, revisiting The Grinch was still a highly enjoyable experience. Indeed, it’s not hard to see why many of Dr Seuss’s other stories have since been adapted – albeit unsuccessfully – for the cinema. Especially for those who loved it when they were younger, I’d highly recommend watching it with more mature eyes; while you might fail to be bowled over by its mawkish charms, I expect that Jim Carrey alone will make it worth anther viewing. It’s not the best holiday film of all time, but it may yet find itself back on my festive viewing schedule. After all, like Quality Street, mulled wine and mince pies, Christmas is the one time of year when we’re allowed to indulge in things that aren’t very good for us.