16th December: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Image: Universal Pictures

The Reel Time Christmas Movie Advent Calendar is exactly what it says on the tin: a classic festive countdown, except instead of chocolate behind the windows it’s my ramblings on a host of Christmas films. In true advent calendar style, films will not be announced in advance, but revealed at 6pm each day. Get involved by shouting abuse at me on Twitter and Facebook, or even just reading and sharing. I hope this can bring a little cheer at the end of a miserable year. Enjoy! 

Year: 2000

Director: Ron Howard

Writers: Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman

Starring: Jim Carrey, Taylor Momsen, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski, Bill Irwin

I wonder what it would feel like to actually have your heart grow three sizes inside your chest. You would die, certainly, but the feeling of a large, pulsing movement inside you is something hard to imagine. Jim Carrey gives the best depiction of what this might feel like that I think is possible in a family film. He convulses wildly on the floor, imbuing every movement with an over-the-top zeal and wicked humour. It is typical of his ferociously committed performance, one that defines the film it is in.

Without the rubber-faced, gurning antics of Carrey, there is no way that Ron Howard’s version of the classic Dr. Seuss tale would have achieved the beloved Christmas staple status that it has. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (I will use its full name to avoid confusion with the 2018 animated version, The Grinch) rests so heavily on Carrey’s performance that it is both its strength and its weakness.

He is, on the one hand, an undeniable cinematic life force. Every scene – even if a joke doesn’t land or the whole thing just seems so oddly chaotic you wonder quite what you are watching – has an entertainment value, because you have to admire how much Carrey goes for it. He brings a silliness to the Grinch that is perfect for the material, and drives the tone for the whole film.

Howard does a good job of keeping the film around his star well-calibrated to his eccentricities. There’s some incredibly bizarre things going on, including impromptu (but delightful) singing, little asides about capitalism, and a Christmas light machine that is daringly phallic. Seriously, that thing brings some weapons-grade innuendo, and the fact it is used by the smirking Christine Baranski makes it even more of a hoot. Baranski is often a highlight in her films, as in both Mamma Mia! and A Bad Moms Christmas, so when she appeared on screen I knew we were in for a good time.

But then, she doesn’t really do an awful lot. Her character is pretty thin and Baranski has disappointingly little to work with. She fits into the character type which frustrates me most: narratively important, blandly written. Her role in the film is crucial to the Grinch’s story, but the character is so nothing. Like I said, all the focus is on Carrey and his performance, and the filmmakers struggle for him not to dominate. I’m not even suggesting more backstory or ‘depth’ to his love interest, just settle on a personality for her. She first appears to be the horny suburban mega-bitch trope that the movies love, but then ends up being a bit…meh.

There’s a danger that runs through the film, too, of Carrey’s antics overshadowing the actual humour in it. Like I said, the film can never be dry or dull with someone so wild and charismatic at the centre, but sometimes the screaming and the shouting makes some good jokes weaker. And, if I’m completely honest, I don’t always find Carrey’s Grinch schtick that enjoyable. It feels a bit like the Gremlins did to me: individual, brilliantly designed and madly entertaining, but capable of quickly wearing thin.

That said, there is still a lot to love about this film. Little Cindy-Lou Who is adorable, and Taylor Momsen gives one of the best child performances on this list (of which there are a lot). On a side note, Momsen would go on to front the rock band The Pretty Reckless, who’s songs ‘Make Me Wanna Die’ and ‘Going to Hell’ went down very well with 15-year-old Andy.

A lot of what is good in How the Grinch Stole Christmas can be found by comparing it to that 2018 do-over with Benedict Cumberbatch voicing Mr. Grinch. I watched that film to prepare for this one, and discovered something safe, amusing and forgettable. The animation was stylish, the voice cast good, but there was a lack of texture and a muddling of the message that held it back.

Howard and Carrey’s Grinch is none of those things, bar the amusing. It picks its style and goes for it hell for leather, which I admire greatly. This is an OTT, silly movie with a soppy message. Don’t like it? Leave. The practical effects, the chance to see the fur on the Grinch, to give a real, tactile feeling to his body via Carrey, is just what the character needs. For such a chaotic film, it remarkably manages to articulate its narrative and message much clearer than the more recent version too, which is again to be commended.

Nobody thinks of the CGI blob when you say the word ‘Grinch’ and there is a reason for that. You feel that this is, and always will be, a definitive take on the character.

Where it Ranks

Before you get upset, please consider what I have placed above How the Grinch Stole Christmas. These are high, high level Christmas films. Die Hard is in a tier of its own as a defining film of its type, even if it seems out of keeping with the others; Happiest Season was a revelation; Klaus a delight; Arthur Christmas made me cry; Black Christmas executes its subversive festive horror brilliantly and helped to found an entire genre; The Muppet Christmas Carol is textbook, perfectly-pitched family viewing; The Nightmare Before Christmas has invention and images that will last a lifetime; and Elf is frankly funnier and more entertaining than Ron Howard’s film. I have no choice, therefore, to place it all the way down in ninth.

It still gets a solid endorsement from me, however, in spite of its position in the table. As for the 2018 animated The Grinch, I did actually enjoy it and even that is still a three-star film in my book. But in a list of films that all gave me joy, it has to sit at the bottom. I do not hear anyone complaining about this, either.

  1. Die Hard
  2. Happiest Season
  3. Klaus
  4. Arthur Christmas
  5. Black Christmas
  6. The Muppet Christmas Carol
  7. Elf
  8. The Nightmare Before Christmas
  9. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
  10. Love Actually
  11. Gremlins
  12. Home Alone
  13. Krampus
  14. Nativity!
  15. The Holiday
  16. The Santa Clause
  17. The Grinch

Andrew Young