Monday, December 24, 2012

Why I... Defend 'The Grinch' as a good movie

Follow me at and like my page at

In my blog earlier this month about the Top 5 Fun but Forgotten Holiday Specials, I said that I felt the need to defend a film that has drawn a great deal of critique (hatred) from a great deal of people.

There are plenty who like it, but so many call it a "guilty pleasure," as if conceding the film is bad they can't justify what's good about it.

That movie is the live-action adaptation of Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," known originally as "The Grinch" but given the full title upon release.

This film received mixed critical reactions more than a decade ago, is hated by my mom and was the butt of not one, but two reviews on Channel Awesome.

To be fair, both the Critic and the Chick's videos were hilarious and they both raise valid points about the movie's flaws. But their statements really set out a point in my mind: While so many have given accounts of what detracts from the film, no one has ever really given an account as to what makes the movie good.

This is upsetting because if the general populous just comes to see it as a guilty pleasure, they'll just shut their brains off while enjoying the movie and the aspects of this film that I think are deserving of cultural consideration will be shut out.

That's unacceptable. Director Ron Howard took a basic story that by all rights should not have been able to fill more than 30 minutes and developed it into a full-length feature with a message that could hit home. It's the only Seuss adaptation that I'd consider to be a worthy successor to the story it adapts and it deserves a proper focus on what it does well (weighed against its missteps).

As such, let's dive into it!

This film takes place on a snowflake. Nice move tying this Whoville to the one in "Horton Hears a Who," though I'm not sure how the timeline works.

The most interesting aspects of the early scenes of the film are twofold. First, the Grinch does go down to Whoville at times to mess around with the citizens. This allows the chance to advance the plot and explains how he knows what goes on in Whoville at Christmas (despite the bizarre protests I've heard that he never went near Whoville and instead used an unseen super-telescope to stalk monitor the Whos).

Second, the Whos are aware of the Grinch and do fear him to some extent. I'd have to assume this is true in all other versions of the Grinch even if it's not seen. I really can't imagine Seuss writing the Grinch as an unseen peeping Tom, or the Whos as completely oblivious to the fact that their presents are being returned by a being covered in green hair.

It's at this point that I should bring up Jim Carrey's performance. Carrey is definitely a love-or-hate kind of actor and I do happen to enjoy his films. I liked his personas in The Mask, Batman Forever and Yes Man, among others, and this is no different.

Yes, he puts facial expressions into everything, but when your makeup makes you look like the actual Grinch (and that makeup was epic), you have to be lighter. The Grinch can be unpleasant, but he doesn't look threatening, and both the film and cartoon acknowledge this by inserting lightness into him.

He definitely goes overboard in certain scenes, but mostly it's legitimately funny and I do actually feel for him as a character, which isn't as present in the cartoon until the end (which is by design, but I'm just making the point that Howard wanted the Grinch to have a likability to him from the start, and he succeeded).

While in Whoville, he pranks the post office... Actually, let me just ask: WHY do they need a post office? From what I can tell, Whoville is a fairly small town and I've yet to see another town on their snowflake, so why is a post office that large necessary? I'm just going to guess there's a "Whatville" and "Whyville" on the snowflake as well and this is years of advancement after HHAW.

OK, so he pranks the post office and out of guilt has to rescue a Who girl that he terrified. This is Cindy Lou Who, who is 8 and not 2. I actually prefer that to the cartoon because, well, how on Earth did a 2-year-old have that long of a sentence in the cartoon?

Cindy is played by Taylor Momsen. Yes, this Taylor Momsen:

I don't get it either, but she then finds herself fascinated by the Grinch and his hatred of Christmas at the same time that she was wondering about the hypocrisy of a commercialized Christmas.

And it is when she gets the Grinch's background that we see the message the Director Formerly Known as Richie Cunningham was going for. The Grinch is shown as a baby being "storked" into a tree during a Christmas party, where everyone's fun distracts them from the terrified baby hanging precariously on a branch.

I won't waste time explaining why the stork delivery story makes no sense in practice EVER or questioning what unholy creatures produced the Grinch baby in the first place, as it's been done to death already and there's no additional humor I could add. Besides, the point I'm making is mostly about the partying through a baby's fear thing.

As a kid, he's made fun of for being different and is shamed into a nasty shaving job, embarrassing him in front of his crush. All of this occurs, again, at Christmas, and he decides the utter hypocrisy of the town is enough to give up on his life there.

And thus we see what Ron Howard was going for. Unlike the cartoon/book Grinch, who simply hated the purity of Christmas and was overwhelmed by the spirit of Christmas that lived in the Whos' hearts, movie Grinch was disgusted by the hypocritical nature of the Whos' Christmas, and was not able to see The Light until the Whos did.

That is the message I always take from the movie and why I think this movie resonates with me. Commercialization of Christmas has been pushed to the Nth degree in my lifetime, and for me, the overall message of Christmas can only be found around family, at Mass and in the specials that emphasize that message over stuff like Santa's legend, reindeer and snowmen (which are good in their own right, just not in the same way).

It's so easy to get distracted from the true spirit of Christmas when people are running hog wild in stores mere hours after Thanksgiving dinner, and the Whoville here reflects that. The Grinch here is a lost soul who can't see the true purpose behind the commercial insanity, and Cindy Lou is experiencing the same feelings (without all the green-haired racism).

Unlike the cartoon, where the Grinch is a villain who reforms, here he is a lost individual who society failed, and it takes a cultural shift in order to bring him back into the fray. I really respect how Howard kept the core of the Grinch character intact with a twist to speak to the modern culture.

And this film goes all out with the commercialization. There's a gift exchange, fudge contest, pudding contest (by the way, the guy who tells the Grinch that what he's giving is not pudding is amazing), house lighting contest (which is better in the ABC cut because you see the resolution as well as some antagonistic character development from the mayor) and all kinds of utter madness.

Cindy Lou convinces the Grinch to give Who Christmas a chance by being the Cheer Meister, but the mayor (who was his bully) proceeds to be an asshole and propose to his crush, causing him to give a monologue about the failure of the Whos' Christmas and then... commit an act of terrorism?

Yeah, I like this movie, but I do think that stealing cars and blowing them up in order to commit arson on a pine tree is ridiculously excessive. Same goes for the fake rage he showed when Cindy got into his house. All that said, if you couldn't laugh at the blatant attempts to blindside the crowd, you're kind of a dull individual.

The Whos have backup decorations, though, and the Grinch is upset at the town's confidence through possessions. As such, he goes into the traditional Christmas-stealing story of the book and cartoon. It's executed as well as a live-action movie could, used the traditional "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" song, and even executed a nice Cindy-Grinch dialogue.

It's not without flaws, though, the most notable being the whole 'make the mayor kiss your dog's a**' thing. It's by far the least entertaining scene in the film and really should have been edited out.

Finally, we get to the Whos' revelation that they've been robbed blind, and they are understandably upset. It's not until Cindy's father defends her efforts to bring everyone together and reminds them that no one was hurt that the real point of Christmas comes through and they all triumphantly sing (to the Grinch's dismay).

Jumped the gun for the sake of a gag.
I LOVE this development. In the cartoon, the Whos just come out and start singing. They don't take inventory of the fact that anything is missing, don't make sure they're family is safe. They just walk out and assume that the family is all going to come out the door. I know the message is that they understand the true spirit of Christmas and Total Good defeats Total Evil, but this is a scene that needed to happen if you wanted to make a Grinch movie.

Grinch finally sees the true meaning of Christmas in a nice scene before having a heart attack where his heart "grows three sizes that day." This worked, but it could have been better. The heart growing when he sees Cindy visited him and is in mortal danger would have been WAY more effective.

Nonetheless, he saves the presents and Cindy, and they go back where he gives back the presents.

And once again, we see something the film did right that leaves me scratching my head in the original. In the original, Grinch comes down from Mt. Crumpit, gives all the toys back, and not only do the Whos not seem to register that he broke into their house and stole their crap, but they make him the guest of honor immediately. WTF?

This version does it right. Grinch realizes that he made a mistake and offers to take punishment. The Mayor expects the arrest to be made, but the town is moved by his contrition and forgives him. That little forgiveness scene gives the whole story a more human feel and is a nice touch that caps off the film.

Of course, since it's a rated G film, all things must round out, so Grinch gets the girl (Martha May, his crush, not Cindy Lou) and the Whos celebrate as a town in the Grinch's cave.

This is by no means a perfect special. There are weak points in the writing and gags are occasionally inserted at the cost of a chance to tell a better story. The set isn't as bad as people claim, but it could have been much more imaginative given the source material.

All that said, though, the good FAR outweighs any negatives and it's an excellent Christmas film. I look at it as a Spider-Man 2 kind of movie. Yes, it's goofy and doesn't take itself seriously, but it gets you emotionally invested all the way through and gets the point across that it wanted. That's the definition of a good movie.

I think the reason this movie gets the hatred/disdain it does is nostalgic backlash. The original special is considered such a classic that any attempts to rework the material, no matter how well-executed, will be met with extreme hatred. Similar issues happened with Amazing Spider-Man and Batman Begins, but the difference is that those movies took the series in such a different, more serious direction that they broke the original mold.

This Grinch had the additional issue of staying close to the source material, but with a backstory and modernized message. People insist on deriding it even though nothing it did was really an affront to the source material.

Overall, this film had real humor, nice emotion, great moments and Taylor Momsen's first musical performance. Can't really complain.

This is one of my favorite Christmas specials, and I can't imagine Christmas without this movie and the cartoon special.

I don't consider one outright superior to the other and won't even attempt to compare because their goals were different. Likewise, I don't expect detractors to suddenly love this movie, but hopefully I've given an argument for this movie that at least helps viewers look at this movie in a different light and helps them learn about themselves and what they like in cinema.

Merry Christmas, and I hope reading this at least makes you think about your tastes. If it does, let that be my gift to you. (If not, you now have the gifts of The Pretty Reckless' new single Channel Awesome reviews embedded in here.)

1 comment:

  1. First, I love Channel Awesome and the Nostalgia Crew! Second, I've always loved this movie and didn't see why everyone hated it so much. Your points are amazing! It even opened my eyes :) Thanks for this awesome review and can't wait to see more! :D