Saturday, December 18, 2010

Survival Fiction, FTW!

I don’t know why, but I have always had a fascination with survival fiction.  Not necessarily the post-apocalypse type, but the stranded-in-the-middle-of-nowhere type.  In fifth grade, I found this book in my desk one day (no clue who left it there and no one came to claim it) called Just A Little Bit Lost, and read it about twenty times – it remains the oldest paperback in my library.  In seventh grade, I read The Cay for a class assignment, and reread that one into the ground, too.  Island of the Blue Dolphins, Hatchet, Lord of the Flies, stories in which one or a handful of characters who are not used to living without other people and civilization are forced to survive on their wits and instincts alone.  Even The Hunger Games books have many elements of survival fiction that gives it a certain draw for me (as if it wasn’t already awesome enough).

I think this genre is a bit harder to carry over to movies, though.  In addition to being well written, in a movie the story has to also be well directed and performed.  Ok, I know that kind of goes without saying in a movie versus book comparison, but I think it’s harder still with survival stories because there is less dependency on other performers, and the director and the actor need to both know what to do and how to do it in a survival situation to make it seem plausible.  I liked Castaway because it did a good job telling the story, seemed like most if not all of what he did would have been the natural progression of things, and Tom Hanks is awesome.  I’d believe he could survive stranded on an island for five years with no one to talk to but a volleyball.

In any survival fiction, though, there is always a danger of the story falling flat and getting boring.  How many ways are there to insert drama into a story where there is a clear formula: get lost, build shelter, find plant food, figure out fire, learn to fish, learn to hunt, probably encounter some dangerous wildlife, probably also have to deal with crazy weather, somehow get rescued.  There.  I just wrote the plotline of every survival story ever.  So why do we keep reading about them?

For one thing, if it’s not done right, if it’s not believable, has flat characters, and is just a straight up sequence of those events, then I usually lose interest.  For example, if you take two sticks and rub them together like people say in order to try to make a fire, it won’t work.  If this works in the story, then it’s a clear indication that the writer/director at least doesn’t know what he/she is doing.

I know this won’t work, and that throws into question anything else this story might have to offer.  It’s a tiny thing, and maybe I’m too picky.  I just can’t suspend my disbelief enough to bring myself to watch something that I know has no research behind it.

If the story is done right, that is, if it is accurate enough that I can’t spot inaccuracies (which really isn’t hard to do since I don’t think I know that much about survival, despite getting my girl scout badge when I was ten), has strong characters, and a unique layer of conflict or struggle, I totally get into it.  I can imagine that I’m one of those British boarding school boys tearing each other apart for resources (ok, maybe not a boy, but among them anyway).  And how crazy would it be to have to learn to survive on an island with an old fisherman without the use of my eyesight?

I’m not sure what the actual draw is to survival stories.  Even Bear Grylls (“Man verses Wild” – yeah, I watch survival TV programs, too) has said that one of his childhood fantasies is to be stranded on a deserted island.  Maybe it’s because it might be useful information?  Far be it from me to suggest that someone should read a survival fiction book or watch a survival fiction movie and then go get themselves stranded in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but an emergency hatchet, but there is some sort of sense that, should you find yourself accidentally alone on an island after your entire tribe has fled and left you and your little brother behind, some of the stuff you read in the books or saw on the movie might help you survive.  For some reason, even though I really don’t think it would be too enjoyable to even be lost on a hiking trip with the guy I had a crush on and five pounds of oatmeal, I find it fun to think about.

Edit: Picture!  This is the book that I was talking about.  Not bad condition, either, just some page yellowing, and a few creases in the cover.  Hey, I was in fifth grade, you can't expect me to have taken immaculate care of everything...

Such and exciting tagline, isn't it?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bridge to Terabithia

I woke up a few days ago at three with a head cold and a sore back.  The cold I knew had been coming since early the previous night.  The back was from the way I had slept.  So, I went into my TV room and laid on the couch, because that’s the only way I know to cure a backache – my couch is apparently better for my back than my bed is.  In order to pass the time, I turned on the TV and find Bridge to Terabithia playing.  Well, I had just read that book a week and a half ago for class, so I thought it was a good opportunity to watch the movie and do my review on it.

Bridge to Terabithia is a novel written by Katherine Paterson and published by HarperCollins in 1978.  It is one of the most frequently banned books, ranking at number 8 on the ALA’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books for 1990 – 2000 (over Heather has Two Mommies) and number 28 on the 2000-2009 list.  I read a synopsis of the book about a year ago, and to be honest I couldn’t see why it was banned so often.  The reasons for its banning have run the gambit from profanity, to religious reasons, to blurring fantasy and reality.  One list of banned books cited sexual content as a reason for its often challenged status.  What, I thought, were Leslie and Jess getting it on in Terabithia or something?

The book opens with Jesse Aarons on Summer break, getting up at the crack of dawn, his little sister May Belle asking if he was gonna go run. Jess has been practicing all summer, determined to win the playground race against the fifth grade boys in his school instead of just being that “crazy kid who draws all the time”. We get a look at his home life and introduction to his family. He’s the middle of five children, and the only boy. His mother is a Georgia raised woman much of whose page time is spent judging other people whilst worrying about other people judging her family, and his father is distant toward his son and doesn’t approve of Jess’s hobby of drawing because he doesn’t want Jess to become some hippie. His older sisters are bratty self centered teenagers and his littlest sister is a four year old crybaby. The only sister Jess has a connection to is May Belle, who idolizes him.

A new girl moves in to the farm next door and introduces herself as Leslie Burke.  On the first day of school a couple weeks later, Jess is feeling confident that he can win the race.  When recess comes ‘round Leslie kind of stalks Jess and hangs out at his shoulder to watch.  Jess breaks up an argument over a tie, and the bossy boy leading the formalities of the race teases him and his Leslie shadow that maybe he’d want a girl to race.  Angry, and seeing no harm in letting her race since there’s no way a girl would have any effect on the outcome, he asks Leslie if she’d like to.  So guess what happens next?  Leslie wins.

In class on Friday, we meet Ms. Edmonds for the first time.  Jess has thought about Ms. Edmonds a few times already, so we know she’s the young, pretty music teacher that is the only person that Jess shares his drawings with because she tells him that he has a special talent.  Yeah, Jess has a crush on her.  While she teaches the class to sing Free to be You and Me, Jess and Leslie’s eyes meet, and in the good mood they smile and become friends in spite of his bitterness at the whole race debacle.

A few days later, Mrs. Myers (the homeroom teacher) reads Leslie’s composition in class because of her excellent use of adjectives and having an unusual hobby “for a girl” – SCUBA diving.  This prompts Mrs. Myers to ask the children to watch a program on Jacques Cousteau.  Leslie explains that she can’t watch it because she doesn’t have a TV – not that she’s poor (quite to opposite, actually) but because she just doesn’t have one.  Because this is the most unusual thing this class has ever heard of, all of the kids except Jess tease her about it.  On the bus home, an upset Leslie sits in the back of the bus and is saved by Jess from being squashed by the school bully, Janice Avery, for sitting in the eighth graders’ spot.

Leslie and Jess hang out that day after school and end up in the woods near their houses.  After wandering for a while, they find a brook with an old rope hanging over it.  Leslie swings over and convinces Jess to do the same, and on the other side of the brook, they “find” the magical kingdom of Terabithia, a place just for themselves.  As the King and Queen of Terabithia, they have many adventures killing giant trolls, warding off invading armies, and building a “castle”.  And for the first time since he could remember, Jesse doesn’t really care what other people think.

Jess is, for the most part, a boy like most others in fifth grade: kind of self conscious, needing approval of fellow fifth grade boys.  He keeps himself out of trouble and only shares his artwork with the only person who he knows will praise it – Ms. Edmonds.  His father disapproves Jess’s hobby and his choice in friends.  While it’s not outright said, it is implied he is afraid that his son will turn gay or hippie or some other social outcast (keep in mind this is in the 1970’s) from drawing and hanging out with girls all day.

Leslie is highly imaginative (clearly) and non-confrontational, at least not in anger.  While she will bravely ward off giants from Terabithia, in real life she seeks a more creative and nonphysical way of dealing with conflict.  When Janice steals May Belle’s Twinkie she comes up with an alternate way of getting revenge instead of fighting.  Her parents are writers, and although we don’t meet them properly until about halfway through the book, we get the feeling that they are trying their best to be a better family unit, even if Leslie is a little bitter that they still don’t seem to have much time for her – at least for the moment.

Some of the reasons this book has been banned are actually kind of unclear to me.  There could be any number of reasons parents would want to ban a book; most of them, I think, are parents overreacting to a situation presented in the book, and some are parents thinking their kids are stupid.  The argument that Bridge to Terabithia blurs fantasy and reality is absurd to me, since kids should already know how to discern the two long before being able to read this book.  Even in the instances of either Leslie or Jess being imaginative, it is clear that’s what they are doing.  Complaints about vulgar language may be slightly founded.  There are a few instances that took me aback for a moment, but it’s along the mild side of anything fifth graders say and very sporadic.  Grief is a prevalent theme in the later chapters, and maybe some parents think fifth grade is too young for kids to deal with loss (sarcastic font: employ!)  And by the way, that’s a teaser, not a spoiler.

As far as sexual content… “Content” I think is the wrong word for it, and touches on the only problem I have with the book.  The relationship between Jess and Ms. Edmonds doesn’t seem to be handled correctly.  I think Katherine Paterson was going for a supportive teacher that wants to encourage Jess.  What it comes off as is Ms. Edmonds pays a bit too much attention to Jess, more than is natural for a teacher to her ten year old student.  But there is no blatant flirting, and no, Jess and Leslie do not get it on in Terabithia.

The book has been adapted twice: once in 1987 for a PBS made for TV movie, and also in a 2007 feature film from Disney directed by Gábor Csupó (of Rugrats fame).  The Disney version is the one I will review, since that’s the one I saw, but anyone who has seen the PBS one is more than welcome to add a comment about it. 

The story is mostly the same, so I’m not going to go into too much plot detail over again.  Some of the more drastic differences are forgivable but slightly annoying to the nit-pickiest of us, and are on the characterizations of Leslie and Jess’s parents, and the setting of Terabithia.  I do have an honorable mention for the handling of interactions between Ms. Edmonds and Jess.  It seems like a much more natural teacher-student relationship, even if the long-held trust Jess displays in showing his work to her is forfeited for an accidental glimpse of the drawings.

In the movie, Jess’s dad is a much more prominent character whose purpose is to teach Jess his place in life.  He is very harsh – overly harsh – to Jess while being very affectionate toward the girls.  There are two added subplots that seem to exist more or less just to show that Jess is berated by his father – one for releasing a possum into the wild instead of killing it, and later for losing his dad’s keys, which were actually taken by May Belle.  This alternate dad characterization actually leads Jess to shoot down Leslie right before he finds Prince Terrien (read the book to find out who he is), giving us a pointless U-turn in the plot that is reversed three minutes later.  While this change in character does give the same vibe that Jess is unsatisfied with his relationship with his dad, his dad comes off more as a jerk than just a guy who is afraid his son is turning into a gay hippie.  There is a bit of a character change in Jess’s mom, too; she’s downplayed and what we do see of her is much more warm and accepting and more like a normal modern mom than the Georgian hypocrite she is in the book.  Not that it matters much to the plot.

Leslie is a bit more proactive in defending herself and the other students.  She confronts Janice about bullying early on by likening her to a troll asking girls to pay a toll of lunch money to use the loo.  Later when Janice is picking on May Belle, she leads the little girls in a “Free the Pee” march.  Instead of making her someone Jess thinks is amazing for all the experiences she has had, she is just a girl with an imagination vivid enough to make up a story about SCUBA diving.  But, again, this really doesn’t hinder the story too much.

The setting of Terabithia to me was sometimes confusing.  The physical place in the woods is much deeper than it is in the book.  Book Jess was too afraid to go that deep in the woods on a regular basis.  Movie Jess is just fine with it.  The movie places Terabithia on the other side of the territory of the imaginary Dark Master, who takes the form of a dementor (apparently).  Along the way they find an abandoned pickup truck, and in Terabithia there is already a tree house which is a short montage and some nasally Disney-pop away from being their castle.  It feels more like Leslie and Jess invade and take over Terabithia rather than them building it themselves.  The thought did occur to me, though, that maybe these things were left by the Leslie and Jess in the book, since the truck looks kind of like a 70’s model and the tree house is run down enough to have been there for 20 or so years.  But then there’s the space-time continuum to think about, so maybe not.

The Dark Master’s minions are what confuse me most.  While the CGI is visually pleasing for the imagined monsters and likewise defenders of Terabithia, there is much more of a blur between fantasy and reality in the movie.  There are plenty of battle scenes where the characters, including Prince Terrien (ok, he’s a dog, P.T. for short) interact cooperatively with something imagined.  At one point, Leslie gets attacked by a ROUS, and Jess tries to fend him off and fails – ok, I’m good so far – but then P.T. bites the imaginary thing of Leslie’s (that he can somehow see) in the butt (meh, kid humor).  There’s where I get confused.  How can P.T. see something that’s in Jess’s and Leslie’s minds?  Is there something actually there?  Later, retrieving his dad’s keys, Jess falls out of a tree about 20 or so feet.  He is caught by a troll they had sort of tamed.  How?  Was the fall really not as long as it was imagined to be?  Did a tree branch break his fall?  It is as if the movie sometimes forgets that Terabithia and its inhabitants weren’t real.

Squogres?  I don't think they exist...

This is one of the better movie adaptations I have seen.  It’s pretty faithful to the story, what changes exist seem to be either for budget purposes (perhaps they spent too much on CGI that they couldn’t afford a cow, so they went with a greenhouse instead) or for time-constrained understanding of the symbolism, such as in the enemies of Terabithia (who often take the form of school bullies), and ultimately don’t affect the plot or the themes of the story.  If you have kids (or are a big kid yourself) and feel that they are mature enough to know the difference between what’s real and what’s fantasy, I’d say give both the book and the movie a go.

Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, baripity, baripity, baripity – Good.  His dad had the pickup going.  He could get up now.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Going to Grinchmas

Ok, so this is a few days late, but that's partly because I've been sick and partly because I wanted to go back and get pictures.  I don't have pictures (yet) because I forgot my camera the first time, and have been sick since.  If I go back before Grinchmas ends, I'll post up some pics for you all to ooo and aah at.

The day I posted the How the Grinch Stole Christmas review, I went to Universal Studios.  I live in Orlando and I have the super-special-get-everything annual pass for the park (shameless brag alert), and I had already planned to go with some friends, completely forgetting that Grinchmas was on (otherwise I would have remembered my camera, because how freaking awesome would that have been!)

For those that don't know, Grinchmas is a holiday attraction that Universal Studios has during the holiday season (when else) in the Seuss Landing area of Islands of Adventure. During the event, Whos walk around Seuss Landing chatting in character to guests and engaging in various hijinks - I saw one Who lasso another with tinsel garland, for instance. I was impressed with the makeup on them - not much more than a prosthetic nose like the ones used in the movie - but I still thought it was neat, especially since part of their act was talking.

There is a show, which is a retelling of the story with both movie and book elements. The Whos are materialistic, Cindy Lou has her yuletide doubts, but since it's only 25 minutes itself there isn't much development of the Grinch's relationship with anyone, and we are back to the Grinch just wanting to be left alone, and being the redeemed villain. The Grinch is especially entertaining, at least in the show I saw, but I think I may have more of a tolerance for silly, cheesy humor when it's a Universal Studios theme park show.

It's a cute experience all around, and if you are in the area, and either have an annual pass or have the money to visit Universal, stop by Seuss Landing while you are there. Chat with some Whos. See the show. Maybe you'll get ambushed by the Grinch himself. And have a happy wintery holiday of your choice and a wonderful New Year!

Friday, December 10, 2010

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Seeing as that it is the Christmas season, and I have children’s books on the brain from classes, I decided to start with that classic story by Dr. Seuss.  I’m not going to insult you by saying you’ve been living under a rock if you haven’t heard of this book and/or seen its animated TV special, but I know very few nobody who hasn’t.  So forgive me when, in my very first review, I spoil the end of the story, because I am under the impression you all know it already, and even if you don’t the pictures tell half the story anyway, as pictures are wont to do in picture books, so you should still go read it.

The book, written and illustrated by Theodore Seuss Geisel, was published in 1957 by Random House.  It is the story of a fifty-three year old (at least) grumpy green furry fellow who has no name but is simply the Grinch.  He’s always hated Christmas because he can’t stand the noise from the toys and the feasting on Who-puddings and rare Who roast beast.  And then, of all the rotten things to do, those confounded Whos go into the village square, hold hands, and start singing!  Well, the Grinch decides he can’t stand all the merriment any longer and decides to stop Christmas from coming.  He gets the idea into his head that if he takes away all the presents and trees and lights, the Whos can’t have Christmas and will Boo-Who all day.  He makes himself a Santa Claus (Father Christmas) suit and ties a branch onto the head of his dog Max so he’d have a reindeer.  Did we mention the Grinch had a dog?  No?  Well, he’s there in the pictures, so it counts.  Half the story, remember?

The Grinch takes his sled down to Who-ville and steals all the Christmas-y things.  He’s almost thwarted by a little girl, Cindy-Lou Who, who’s no more than two (although amazingly verbose and coherent for a two year old.  Maybe Whos develop faster or something.)  But, he tells a little white (and red and green) lie about the lights on the tree not working, and Cindy Lou buys it and goes back to bed.  The Grinch steals all the trees and presents and food, leaving crumbs too small for even a mouse.  He does this to all the Who houses and all the Who mouses.  As dawn breaks, the Grinch and Max are at the top of the cliff where they live ready to dump the stuff off of it and are waiting to hear boo-whoing Whos.  But instead those Whos, without their toys to make noise, without the puddings and roast beasts to feast upon, without the lights and decorations, still hold hands in the village square and sing.  Christmas came without all that stuff, and so maybe there’s more to Christmas than materialism.  Well, the Grinch’s heart grows, breaks the little heart viewer window thingie it grows so much, and he sleds down the mountain, returns the gifts and trees and decorations and food, and the Whos are such cool people that they let him carve the roast beast.  Fahoo fores, dahoo dores/Welcome Christmas, come this way!

The purpose of the story was to condemn the commercialism of Christmas and remind kids of the proverbial true meaning of the holiday – that Christmas Day is in our grasp/So long as we have hands to clasp.  The story, while from a third person point of view, is from the perspective of the Grinch.  The description of when the Whos sing in the beginning is in an incredulous and irritated tone, and the same phenomenon is described with wonder at the end.  While the Grinch is robbing the Whos blind, the tone of the narration is that he, while indeed a mean one, is a clever and cunning one as well.  The reader can imagine, if one wants, that he’s never had anyone to care about, except Max, so he doesn’t understand the purpose of Christmas.  All he wants is a quiet life on the mountain, and his entire motivation is to make the Whos miserable, either in payback for the noise or to ensure future quiet time.  You see a bit of the justification for his desire to stop Christmas, even if you don’t agree with how he goes about it.  He’s socially inept because he has no one to socialize with.

The version that almost everyone is familiar with, the animated TV special, was directed by one of my favorite animators, Chuck Jones.  You can totally see his style when you compare it to the Road Runner cartoons he was famous for.  This, however, is not the movie I am reviewing, even if it is relevant.  In 2000, Ron Howard directed a live-action feature length movie based on this classic satire of the holiday season.  Both Howard and Jim Carrey, who played the Grinch, took inspiration from the cartoon for the direction and performance respectively, and it worked pretty well, for the parts of the movie that were in the book.

The problem is that the story needed to be padded in order to make it feature length.  The cartoon added songs and animation sequences to the book, which in 1966 took Boris Karloff about thirty minutes to read with all that going on.  It takes me about ten minutes to read aloud with some acting and voice inflection (things are so much faster these days!).  So, in order to fill up its one hundred minutes, the movie had to be stretched out and padded and story-arced until we are left with about twenty percent of the movie (estimated from my “most reliable source”) coming from the original Seuss story.

The movie opens up with snow.  This is because, according to the movie, Whoville is in a snowflake.  Seems kind of an unstable foundation seeing as that it would melt quite quickly if it warmed up, but I’m not an architect, so what do I know.  Actually, this a nod to a different Dr. Seuss book, Horton Hears a Who (which I vaguely remember also being made into a movie starring Jim Carrey), in which an elephant named Horton hears a Who calling to him from a speck of dust.  So, maybe the Who-ville dust planet froze over and became the nucleation point for a snowflake?  Possible I suppose, if what I remember from science class is right.  The location of Who-ville is not mentioned in the book since it has no bearing on the story at all, but since Horton heard them three years before the Grinch stole Christmas, it seems to be an established fact in Seuss World.

When we arrive in Whoville, we meet a five (or so) year old Cindy Lou Who, who in the movie is a much more prominent character than the one line she had in the book, and her father Lou Lou Who out Christmas shopping.  Cindy Lou asks her father if he thinks all this is a bit much, opening the movie with what should be our final message.  Then we see the Grinch being teased and tormented by little Who brats, doing the “I dare you to knock on the door” bit to his cliff-side cave.  This upsets the Grinch so much that he decides to take a trip down to Whoville and wreak havoc on the shopping Whos.  We get a cheery earful of the Barenaked Ladies (whose humor and awesomeness I have only recently really started to appreciate – something my little sister has known for over a decade) as the Grinch is generally a jerk to everyone just because.  Cindy Lou interrupts his attempt to sabotage the mail room, and he scares her into then rescues her out of the sorting machine, so now she is his friend.

Back at the Lou Who house (that must be their last name: we have Lou Lou Who, Betty Lou Who, and Cindy Lou Who), Betty Lou is setting up lights like any cliché Christmas movie mom is, and grumbling about the fact that her next door neighbor, the sexy obviously-the-love-interest Martha May Whovier, keeps winning.  This subplot is more or less nonexistent until a very small payoff at the end.

We get some glimpses of the Grinch at home, too.  He rummages through garbage, eats onions like apples, makes crank calls to the Whos.  It’s like if Oscar the Grouch and Shrek had a kid together, this version of the Grinch would be him.  There is significant time devoted to the Grinch being an ogre-like recluse of a creature.  Why is he like this you ask?  Well, let’s find out along with Cindy Lou, who has taken to finding out the pathos of our favorite green furry grump (because she’s really a twenty year old in a five year old’s body).  She goes door to door interviewing the neighbors about the Grinch and where he’s from and what he was like before he lived on the cliff 3000 feet above Whoville.  Wait, I thought Whoville was in a snowflake.  That must be one HUGE snowflake.

The Grinch’s life starts out with him being a jerk to another Whobaby, shoving it out of the way to take its place as their Whobaby-baskets-with-umbrellas float to their mommies and daddies.  The Grinch for his troubles lands in front of a house having a party and ends up staying out there all night because no one sees him.  He has a grudge against Christmas from the start, showing hatred for ornaments, trees, and Santa Claus from the time he is taken in.  Or maybe he just hates the commercialism of it, because Cindy Lou questioning it every five minutes isn’t enough to drive that message into our heads yet.

Fast forward to eight year old Grinch in class with Martha May and the fellow who would be the Mayor and the apparent villain of the movie because the Grinch sure isn’t it, Augustus Maywho.  Maywho is a bully from the beginning, but otherwise pretty harmless, meaning that he’s not violent, just bigoted.  Martha May lays on the flirt REAL heavy, and Maywho is jealous because he wants to date her.  Did I mention these are eight year olds?  Oh, that’s right, I forgot.  Whos develop at a rate faster than humans.  So fast, in fact, that they are fourteen when they are eight.  So, Martha May tells the Grinch she likes Christmas colors, you know, red and green.  Excited for Christmas for the first time in his life, he makes a rather nice angel out of a vegetable steamer basket for Martha May’s tree.  In an attempt to “look his best” he shaves off the beard that Maywho had teased him for having, but is none too skilled with the electric shaver.  But look at the thing!  You’d cut yourself up with that, too!

The Grinch gets teased at school for having cut up his face, and he throws a fit and the Christmas tree, which gets Martha May all hot for him.  He decides that he’s going to be a recluse in the cliff-side cave from then on. 

There are some more scenes of the Grinch being an ogre and hating Christmas, and somewhere along the line Cindy Lou nominates him to be Christmas King or something because he needs a hug the most, which Maywho scoffs at and says that he (the Mayor) gets to be King if the Grinch doesn’t show.  Cindy Lou in her five year old body climbs 3000 feet of mountain in knee deep snow while a storm is on (uphill both ways and she liked it, too!) to invite the Grinch to the Whobilation to get his award, because absolutely no one else nominated anyone.  The Grinch tries to scare her off, but her twenty year old mind isn’t fooled by it, as “she herself is having some yuletide doubts”, and convinces him to go because Martha May will be there and Maywho will be sad that he lost.

The Grinch steals some lederhosen off of the Riccola fellow because he has nothing to wear and crashes the party into Matha May’s boobs (which she apparently doesn’t mind).  Mayor Maywho goes out of his way to make the Grinch uncomfortable with all the Whobilation festivities, and then gives him a shaver as his award and proposes to Martha.  The Grinch has a tirade about how materialistic the Whos are about Christmas, because we need more of that in this movie, and has obviously learned how to use the shaver because he does a fine job of shaving Maywho’s head before burning down the Christmas tree, stealing a twelve inch mini car from some tiny Whos, and crashes it, of course causing it to not only explode, but mushroom cloud over Whoville as he retreats to his sewer shortcut to his cave.  Maywho blames Cindy Lou for ruining the Whobiliation because he’s a jerk.

An hour into the movie, we finally pick up where the book starts, and where the influence from the animation is felt.  We get a pretty decent cover of “Mr. Grinch” as we watch a montage of him building his sled.  The theft scenes are rather lovingly recreated from the cartoon, including him slinking under the rug, throwing whole trees up the chimney, vacuuming presents and stockings up, etc.  Even the Cindy Lou walking in on him stealing stuff scene is relatively unaltered.  Which I wouldn’t mind if we had not spent an hour of the movie with Cindy Lou getting to know the Grinch, often in his presence.  One would think, as smart as she is, that she would recognize the Grinch’s furry green hands, or at least his face, which she sees when he pops it through the tree in an attempt to scare her.  But she just believes that it’s Santa, and tells him that the Grinch is really sweet.

During all his midnight thievery the Grinch has one last laugh as he ties the police car to Maywho’s bed, so  when the police respond to the theft reports, the Mayor is dragged all over town in his night things.  The Grinch makes Max (he’s in the movie a lot more too, but mostly for cute puppy tricks) pull the sled up to the top of the cliff so he can dump the stuff.  Maywho berates Cindy Lou once again for for ruining Christmas because she was the cause of the Grinch coming into town, but Lou Lou Who says he’s glad the gifts are gone so, what else, they can see that Christmas is more than things.  Fahoo fores, dahoo dores…  Wait, where did Cindy Lou go?

She took the sewer shortcut to the Grinch’s house because she didn’t want to be alone.  She probably would have seen the Grinch’s heart growth attack if she hadn’t been too busy climbing the big stack of stuff in the sled.  This is so that when the Grinch decides to give back Christmas, there’s an incentive other than toys, food, and decoration (because those things have no place in Christmas and are in fact evil) to save the sled.  And, since the stuff is saved too, why not give it back to the Whos.  The light contest “payoff” occurs when Betty Lou takes the lights off her house (because the Grinch forgot them?) and Martha May helps her stretch it across the street to stop the sled.  The Grinch apologizes and surrenders to his arrest, but that is apparently enough for all the Whos except Mayor Maywho who wants to actually follow the law and throw the Grinch in jail.  Martha May gives Maywho back his ring so she can be with Grinch, who gloats about getting the girl.  The Grinch carves the roast beast and sings.  And gives up the very grudge that made him a recluse for 20 or 30 or 50 years – it’s hard to tell because Martha May looks in her late 20s or so, the Mayor looks like he’s in his 60’s, and the Grinch is supposed to be at least 53 – all in one night because… um… Christmas is about more than toys. 

I do like that the movie attempts to explore the Grinch’s history, even if it is contrived and forced.  This is something that movies based of shorter books can do, and sometimes even do well, although I can’t really say that it’s done well here.  The Grinch is not much more than a jerk from the moment the Who-stork put him in that Whobaby-umbrella-basket, and we lose that sense of him just wanting to get some quiet when he actively goes down to Whoville for the express purpose of tormenting the Whos.  The change in him is kind of sudden, and all for a woman that he doesn’t know likes him – he’s just lucky she does, although for what reason other than the color of his fur we never know.  The Grinch, who in the original book and likewise the cartoon is the villain that is redeemed at the end, is made out to be a bullied, misunderstood, and shunned sympathetic character that shows signs of being redeemable early on.  The movie writers seem to think that kids don’t understand that a villain can change and become a good guy, that the villain must be someone to overcome  but not forgiven, and so we have Maywho as the villain and the Grinch with a sympathetic past, caused by the villain himself years ago.

The constant beating of the message into our heads ruins the message.  Yes, we get it.  Christmas is not about toys and parties and feasts.  You don’t have to remind us in every single scene.  Between Cindy Lou’s constant “yuletide doubts” and the Grinch’s monologueing, the final “here’s the lesson we learned” speech at the end from Lou kind of falls flat because we’ve already heard it twenty times.  This also brings up the characterization of the Whos.  Judging by this book alone, we don’t get much of their daily lives. While those were colorfully filled in, they were really not necessary.  What we can infer from the book is that the Whos already know the meaning of Christmas, as they do not let the tragedy of stolen stuff deter them from joining hands and singing, which is what teaches the Grinch, the only one who doesn’t know.  The movie makes them all materialistic and self-centered, with the only redeeming character being Cindy Lou.  When the only one left to share the message that Christmas being over-commercialized is a five year old, it’s no wonder she always sounds like she’s a twenty year old little person.

This move has so many clichés in it that my eyes hurt from rolling them so much.  Maybe, if I were a kid I might not be privy to all the stuff that’s been done before or all the stuff that Mythbusters disproved (a car leaking gas does not blow up, much less in a fireball that is 200 times its size).  But with a movie like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, you have to remember that the kids this is targeted towards are parented by people who grew up on the 1957 book and the 1966 movie you were taking inspiration from.  They may want to enjoy this movie, too.

All-in-all, it’s not a bad movie, and, as I mentioned, it’s good where the influence of the animated special is present, visually and nostalgically speaking.  But for the added story, the message is lost in the repetitiveness and the audience is spoken down to, the kids as well as the adults.  If you love the book or the animated special, you’ll probably be disappointed in the movie.

Now, every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot
But the Grinch who lived just north of Whoville did NOT!

I really am going to try to not go into so much detail on the plots in future reviews; I took some liberties here because, again, I assumed that everyone knew the story already.  I will work on flushing out my format and hopefully have less than five pages next time.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Welcome to the Theater's Reader

I love to read.  Ever since I was a young little thing I was an avid reader.  The first book I ever read was at three years old – an Easy Reader called Jack the Waiter that my brother had taught me how to read by teaching me the word list in the back of it, and then having me read the ten page book to him.  My earliest memory of being in a library was at seven years old searching the shelves for my favorite book series, Nate the Great.  The first novel I read was around that time, too.  It was called Shoebag, which is now sadly out of print (but I got me a used copy off eBay, so it’s all good).

I love watching movies, especially good movies, but I take the occasional guilty pleasure in watching a bad movie over again.  There is no movie I will refuse to watch (yet).

Hollywood loves making movies.  Hollywood apparently loves reading books, too, because about 70% (or more) of the movies that it turns out are adaptations of books - official stats taken from the most reliable source I know, my... um... pants.  But Hollywood also, for the most part, has little respect for the books they adapt.  No book genre or category is safe from Hollywood’s grubby mitts: novels, children’s picture books, graphic novels, even unpublished stuff gets rewritten, reformatted, stretched, cut, and re-imagined for the silver screen, often to the point of no recognition.  Not all adaptions are butchery, but there are very few that I think give the books the respect that they deserve.

That’s where I intend to come in.  I will take a good look at both the book and the movies that are based on them and see how they size up to each other.  I hope I can bring humor into it, since humor is what the kids are into nowadays, and give you a glimpse of the book and the movie without spoiling, since my ultimate goal is to get you folks to read.

Feel free to suggest a book/movie for me to review.  Any book/movie genre is welcome.  Obscure and bad books and movies possibly more so than good ones, since they will probably get more comedic value, but don’t shy away from the good ones, either.   Series are great as well, but they may require more than one post.  If you do suggest something, keep these “rules” (more of guidelines, really) in mind:

1) The movie must be an adaption of the book to the point of the story is so similar it could not be anything but an adaption of the book.  i.e. I will not review Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and call it an adaption of The Odyssey, because the movie is only loosely based on the Greek epic poem.  I may, however, review Troy as an adaption of the Iliad - I'll have to read/watch them again to be sure, though. ;)

2) The movie must be on DVD.  This is both because it’s a lot easier and cheaper for me to rent a movie, and to give me some time to review and reread and really analyze both.  I think clearer when given time.

3) Although I mention graphic novels in my post, I’m not too much of a comic reader.  This doesn’t mean that I will never review a comic book and its movie, but those will not be a regular part of this blog.

4) Try to keep it to one tier.  Book -> movie.  A few might be book -> movie + remake, and that’s ok.  Just keep it away from something like book -> video game -> movie or short story -> play -> novel -> graphic novel -> TV series -> video game -> renovelization -> interpretive dance -> movie + remake, ok?

I will try to post a review at least twice a month (15th and 30th is the plan), and promise to put up at least one a month.   I have a full time job and go to school officially full time (three classes),so for the time being - well, starting in January, anyway - I'm a busy woman.

Note: I will not, at least at this time, review Twilight or Harry Potter.  Those two are reviewed into the ground already.  Again, this doesn’t mean I will never review them (and believe me I have tons to say for both), but for now I’d like to leave them both alone.
Another note: When commenting: I plan on being an elementary school teacher, and would love for my students to be able to read or contribute to my reviews.  Try to keep your comments appropriate for people of all ages.  I will not use harsh language in these reviews.  If you must let out your inner flamer, please e-mail me your abusive comments and keep the comments on the blog clean.  Thanks!

I hope you all enjoy my project.  I've never really done this before, but I watch a lot of interwebz stuff, so I should be good, right?