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by: Michael Dequina

Ironically, whenever an author's name appears in the title of an adaptation of a literary work, chances are that the film strays quite far from the source material. Witness, for instance, the opulent, operatic, and decidedly unscary Bram Stoker's Dracula; or the modern-day-set, Bard-in-need-of-Ritalin William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Ron Howard's adaptation of the family holiday favorite, is no exception; this is star Jim Carrey's Grinch, not the good doctor's--a classic tale whose timeless charms are needlessly reconfigured to fit the big box office name.

Luckily, those time-proven virtues haven't been completely wiped out; vestiges of the story told by the original 1957 book (and its faithful 1966 animated TV adaptation) still remain. The film is set in Whoville (vividly realized by production designer Michael Corenblith), and its residents, the Whos, are the same Christmas-loving lot that readers are familiar with. Living in a cave atop the nearby Mt. Crumpit is the Grinch (Carrey), the fuzzy green ball o' bah humbug that attempts to rob the Whos of their holiday cheer by stealing all of their presents.

But in typical "the more, the better" Hollywood fashion, Howard and screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman weren't content with just showing how the Grinch stole Christmas; they also spell out why he did it, and the humdrum explanation offered proves to be needless baggage that muddles the endearing simplicity of the Seuss story. The same can be said of other would-be enhancements to the narrative: a corrupt Whoville mayor (Jeffrey Tambor); an expanded role for young Cindy Lou Who (newcomer Taylor Momsen), whose film-stalling warbling of a soggy new James Horner-penned ballad is one of the film's most wrongheaded moments; and, perhaps most baffling of all, an unrequited love for the Grinch in the form of Martha May Whovier (Christine Baranski).

Carrey brings a different sort of baggage to this Grinch--the mixed blessing of his comedic talents. Amazingly, the full-body Grinch suit and makeup (an impressive achievement by the award-winning Rick Baker, who also gives the Whos a distinctive look) does not obscure Carrey's most signature trait, his rubber face; his heavily done-up mug still registers the wide array of expressions only his elastic features could make. His special knack for slapstick also comes in handy when it comes to the film's many physical gags--which points up the unsurprising but no less disconcerting quality to the film as a whole: it's been Carrey-ized. There are pratfalls abound, including one that lands the Grinch's head in the cleavage of a female Who; one extended Grinch-in-Whoville sequence appears specifically designed as a showcase for his usual broad schtick. The lilt of Seuss' famous rhyme scheme has largely been relegated to Anthony Hopkins' narration track, freeing Carrey to do his usual wailing and bellowing, albeit in a Grinchy growl (though every now and again the mean green one does utter a couplet or two, setting up the expected ironic aside about hating rhyme). Granted, Carrey's antic energy keeps the film lively, but his performance is a good one as the typical Carrey persona, not necessarily as the character of the Grinch. Instead of disappearing into the role, it and the film disappears into Carrey, thereby altering the flavor of the story.

This miscalculation I can only chalk up to millennium madness, which makes the urge to modernize that much more tempting, especially when it comes to a text that's over 40 years old. But in giving How the Grinch Stole Christmas a more contemporary spin, Howard and the rest of the crew do something the late Dr. Seuss never would: take chronological age over the youthful, innocent spirit that lingers untouched in everyone--and never goes out of style.

RATING: *** (out of *****)


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