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.

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