Ron Howard’s ”Grinch” perverts Dr. Seuss’ message
I keep holding out the vain hope that, someday, one of those immense, expensive, CGI laden, emotionally fraudulent Hollywood blockbusters is going to implode like an end stage red giant star and, through the gravitational pull of its own internal hollowness, pull the industry along with it.
On the face of it, that movie should be Ron Howard’s ”Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” No such luck, though: While the film actually IS a working definition of everything that’s debased, deluded, and wrong about mainstream American movies, it’s also making a bundle of box office simoleons – $134 million in a week and a half, to be precise. So no one’s really gonna care while I (and a few other pinhead critics) point out that Howard’s ”Grinch” perfectly represents what it pretends to be against: the wholesale corruption of the spiritual by the material. ”The Grinch,” in other words, IS the Grinch. What’s messed up about this movie? Let me count the ways.
”Maybe? Christmas doesn’t come from a store.” No, it doesn’t – but you CAN buy the soundtrack with a new cut by ‘N Sync, plus the decorative Grinch pillows from Hanover Accessories, plus the Grinch shower radio, plus the Grinch boxer shorts, plus the usual fast food tie ins, plus scores of other products available for your pleasure on the film’s website. What’s depressing isn’t the scope or the venality of this by now standard cashing in, but the fact that the entertainment industry can’t even comprehend that it’s acting in direct contradiction of the story’s original message. ”In order for this picture to be made, the merchandise and the tie ins were absolutely essential,” said a Universal spokesman recently. Listen to him: He actually believes what he’s saying.
Beyond the fact that a slender fable about the inner meaning of the holiday has been brought to market with a promotional blitzkrieg aimed at gouging every parent and child’s wallet, there’s the movie itself, which has to be the dingiest, chintziest, most cacophonous $120 million movie ever made. Whoville looks exactly like what it is: blocks of styrofoam on a soundstage. The inhabitants of Whoville are made up as hideous freaks, resembling nothing so much as the mutants at the end of that old ”Twilight Zone” classic ”Eye of the Beholder.” The Grinch himself has saggy, hairy man breasts: Eyewwwwww!
In Dr. Seuss’ original book, as well as in the 1966 Chuck Jones directed TV special that hewed with reasonable fidelity to it, the Whos are generic and unindividuated: They’re stand ins for us humans and are seen to be basically simple and kindhearted. They ALREADY know the meaning of Christmas, thank you. In Ron Howard’s version, the Whos are freakish (see above), greedy, covetous, and shallow – mindless consumer sheep. Again, as far as the filmmakers are concerned, they’re stand ins for us humans, and while that’s a validly cynical world view (and, I gotta tell you, the success of ”The Grinch” makes me think Howard and company may be on to something), it still makes for one rancid cup of holiday eggnog. And, no, the last minute transformation of the Whos to kind and caring Christmas citizens – complete with a brain deadeningly banal Faith Hill song over the closing credits – doesn’t help, since clearly neither the filmmakers nor star Jim Carrey (who keeps up his rotely amusing pomo- comedy shtick all the way to the end) appear to believe it.
Worst of all, it sells out Dr. Seuss
I have two young daughters. In reading them the collected works of Theodor S. Geisel over the last few years, I’ve come to appreciate all over again what made the man a genius of pointed nonsense right up there with Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, and Edward Lear. He loved the sheer SOUND of language, for one thing (see ”Green Eggs and Ham”). Old time Lefty that he was, he liked rule breakers from the Id (see ”The Cat in the Hat”) and he liked tweaking the officious, the parental, and the authoritative (see ”Yertle the Turtle”). He could explore childhood terrors with uncanny power (see the downright surreal ”What Was I Afraid Of?” or, as millions of kids know it, ”The Runaway Pants”). His drawing style had a simple elegance of line to rival any of the 20th century masters of illustration, from Al Hirschfeld to R. Crumb.
And he certainly reveled in the ways that manifold silly critters can bite themselves on the ass, whether they’re Star Bellied Sneetches, North Going Zaxes, or that poor, dumb woman who named all her 23 children Dave. Above all, Geisel had an abiding, refreshingly unsentimental faith in the goodness of people. He hardly ever forced it; it’s just there between the lines, occasionally popping out in characters like Horton the Elephant. Ron Howard’s ”The Grinch,” by contrast, slathers icky, unconvincing corporate sentimentality over its feel bad message – and then sends you out to buy more toys.