Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment have placed a major obstacle in the path of anyone wanting to see the new movie version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas: their marketing and promotion. It's a given that the selling of movies now has little to do with their content and nothing to do with their value. That much is evident when Miramax peddles Bounce as a half-dozen different movies in trailers that hone in like sob-seeking missiles on various demographics, or when the bloodthirsty action figures of the satiric Small Soldiers are sold to kids as G.I. Joes. But in The Grinch's case, it's a hell of a thing to take a movie about the deranging effects of consumerism and use it to encourage Yuletide shoppers to max out their Visa cards.
The Dr. Seuss original--stop me if you've heard this before--is about a curmudgeonly creature who swipes all the Yuletide goodies from the low-lying town of Whoville, only to learn from the goodhearted Whos that Christmas means more than presents. The Grinch learns that Christmas isn't something you buy in a store; the Whos get back their gifts after demonstrating that they don't need them. Far from rejecting the Whos' largesse, the now-tamed Grinch assumes his place at the head of their table, like any suburban dad. The story, first published in 1957, has sometimes been interpreted as a satire of Fifties consumer culture; if so, it's much more ambiguous on this front than, say, the florid, pointed melodramas Douglas Sirk was making at roughly the same time that the Grinch first appeared.
In Ron Howard's cheeky rendition, though, the disgustingly cheery Whoville is a nightmare of materialism run amok. Christmas shopping is literally religion, worshiped round the clock and canonized by the all-powerful Book of Who; its warped chapel is the Whoville business district, envisioned by production designer Michael Corenblith as a riot of crooked angles and lollipop expressionism. No less warped are the people who inhabit it. Except for little Cindy-Lou Who (Taylor Momsen), who wants something more from the season than gifts, the pink-cheeked, pig-nosed Whos--including a corrupt mayor (Jeffrey Tambor), postmaster (Bill Irwin), and sexpot (Christine Baranski)--resemble nothing so much as the deformed "normal" creatures in the classic Twilight Zone episode "Eye of the Beholder."
Far less grotesque is the furry, green, bulbous Grinch, who lives off (and on) the mountain of rubbish discarded by the Whos down below. Essentially flushed away with the town's waste as a kid, he waits for the right time to besmirch Whoville's sterile celebrations. Within this framework, the long-suppressed Grinch pops loose like a combination of Jack Nicholson's Joker and Michael Keaton's Beetlejuice--all id, libido, and unmerited vanity. And Jim Carrey embodies him to perfection, contorting and springing his body like a human jack-in-the-box, unfurling his long hairy fingers in vengeful glee. The Grinch gives Carrey room for plenty of anarchic freestyling, but the costume forces him to stay in character: He avoids the glib pop-culture riffing and peekaboo bids for audience sympathy that would have made Robin Williams such a pill in the role.
In the movie's centerpiece, a cheery town function that turns into Carrie's prom, Carrey's Grinch rails with liberating fury against the Whos' conspicuous consumption. (Like any other Green these days who talks truth to power, he gets branded a spoiler.) So when the Grinch has his climactic change of heart, the ending rings even hollower than it does in the story. Director Howard and screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman are so clearly on the Grinch's side that their attempts at Christmas cheer are close to unbearable. For pure torment, there's a gloppy Faith Hill ballad called--easy, stomach--"Where Are You, Christmas?" Every icky drop should be poured down composer James Horner's stocking, followed by the rest of his score.
But even that can't dim Carrey's manic highs, the brilliance of the production design, or the energy of Howard's direction, which, in its brightest moments, provides an audacious cartoon of materialist madness. Which brings us to the marketing tie-ins. For a start, you can choose from a wide variety of useless merchandise, including the same gift wrap that the Whos throw away by the metric ton. Then, in a Grinch-like show of holiday cheer being splashed over every network, Visa will clear some lucky consumers' Yuletide credit-card bills--a gesture designed, of course, to send millions of suckers on a journey to the nether reaches of their credit limit. If Universal ever makes a film of The Lorax, prepare to watch every last Truffula Tree whittled into promotional toothpicks.