It's Christmas movie month at SteynOnline. We started last week with The Apartment, a great film that just happens to be set at Christmas. In recent years, Hollywood has preferred to offer Christmas films for whom any greatness is incidental to seasonal opportunism. Almost every star has been pitched one of these projects and one assumes somewhere at the back of his mind is the hope that this script will prove to be the It's A Wonderful Life for our times. So here's a couple of turn-of-the-century Yuletide offerings each showcasing a star of the era - one, a potential classic rendered cheap and tacky; the other, modest and unassuming, and yet not without a certain charm.
The 2000 Grinch - or Dr Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas, to give it its formal title - must be a strong contender for the foulest, ugliest, shrillest, emptiest children's film of all time. Groaning under $100 million of high-tech gimmickry, it stands as a spectacular monument to the lavish barrenness of Hollywood.
As far as I can tell, Dr Seuss' slim 1957 volume of repetitive rhymes and weird line drawings doesn't count for much in Britain and the Commonwealth, but in America this book ranks just a tad below A Christmas Carol and 'Twas The Night Before Christmas. It is, in a nutshell, the essence of the former in the form of the latter: the Grinch is a green hairy Scrooge brooding up in his mountain lair who so loathes the Christmas jollity in the town of Whoville down below that he decides to steal everybody's presents. In 1966, the book became a cartoon short narrated by Boris Karloff, since when the tale has been a seasonal institution, its title part of the American vernacular: the newly resurgent Newt, for example, was defined for his first half-decade in the spotlight by Time's cover story on the 1994 Republican sweep of Congress — 'How The Gingrich Stole Christmas'.
The original tale is, of course, too short for a full-length feature. So it's been pumped up here with backstory, noisy effects, anachronisms and relentless wisecracks to fill out the time. And by the time all these extras have been tossed in, the one thing there isn't any room for is the original Dr Seuss poem. Thirty-four years on, Mr Karloff has been succeeded by Anthony Hopkins, but his verses have been pared back to the bare minimum necessary to give the film a gloss of lit cred.
The Grinch made flesh is Jim Carrey, a shaggy lump of green hair from top to toe with a wrinkly pig snout in the middle. The only reason we know it's Carrey buried under the emerald werewolf get-up is because he seems to be frantically straining to burst out of the costume and let us know it's really him. He leaps, bounds, recoils, double-takes, clowns, mugs and leans endlessly into camera to loose rapid-fire asides like 'dude'. From the beginning, there is a desperate ferocity to the performance, the first indication that this adaptation is not at ease with itself.
Unlike the insouciant Dr Seuss, the film feels obliged to give the Grinch a motivation for his meanness. It seems that, as a child in Whoville, he was picked on in school for being green and covered in body hair. As a result, he fled up the mountain to live a hermetic existence, eating glass, talking to his echo and eschewing all company save for his dog. He's riddled with self- loathing, as he periodically confesses to us. Fortunately, an adorable little girl, Cindy Lou Who, has decided that the Grinch is just a big old lovable softie underneath and that the best way to bring him out is to get him made official Cheermeister of the Whoville Whobilation. Cindy Lou was a minor character mentioned en passant in the original, but she's now been plucked out to become the conscience of the film. In her generic niceness, she is all too obviously a device rather than a person. That may be why, if you watch this film with actual kids, they have zero interest in her.
As for Whoville, it's hell. A riot of bustling narrow streets overhung with shingles for every kind of attraction, it's a vaguely mediaeval village, which is to say it looks like a Santaland in a New Jersey shopping mall. The screen is filled with junk of all shapes and sizes, and the film is shot through a filter that blurs everything just enough to turn into a shrieking riot of off-red — a sort of grubby Santa suit color. All the citizens have human features except for big pig snouts whose principal effect is to render a distinguished cast largely anonymous, save for Christine Baranski (from TV's Cybill), the Grinch's sex fantasy, who looks fabulous even with a porcine proboscis.
Otherwise, Whoville is a dull, conformist, materialist dump, simultaneously consumerist and Stalinist — like Ceausescu with a Toys 'R' Us franchise. Predictably enough, contemporary Hollywood is far too nervous and/or Godless to go anywhere near the real meaning of Christmas, so even the happy ending seems hollow and joyless. Showered with dollars and computerized distractions, a slight fable has been inflated into a monstrosity that makes sense only if you think the public is yearning for a sour epic about a shriveled creature living on top of a garbage dump who terrorizes an ugly town with no soul. The director, Ron Howard, is a grand old heartwarmer (Cocoon, etc.) but the heart of this picture is dead.
On the other hand: Jingle All The Way is the story of one dad's determination to get his son the latest superhero doll, the jet-propelled Turbo-Man, whose catchphrase is 'It's Turbotime!'. To kids, Turbo-Man is the coolest thing in pantyhose: in Brian Levant's film, we get to see his television show, his line of T-shirts, his Christmas parade float, even his lunch box. With a Disney picture, the reason they'd go to the trouble of showing us all these highly plausible merchandising spin-offs would be because they're now available at your local Toys R Us: around the time this film came out, for example, there were over 700 product tie-ins for 101 Dalmatians, not including the fur coat. By contrast, Jingle All The Way, a film packed full of promotional tie-ins, didn't actually have any: with endearing ineptitute, 20th Century Fox left it too late to get anything into the stores for Christmas. That's rather touching, considering the movie's protagonist is a man who leaves it too late to get to the stores in time for Christmas. It also adds a kind of accidental integrity to the film's portrait of commercial frenzy and consumer exploitation: you've seen the film; now buy ...something entirely unconnected with it.
The negligent pop in this instance is Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing a busy exec who's forgotten to get his son the Turbo-Man doll he's expecting from Santa. On the morning of Christmas Eve, he sneaks off to the mall, only to find that Turbo-Man is such a huge hit he's sold out. Somehow, dad has to get hold of one: after all, the kid's set his heart on the Turbo-Man doll, and can recite its many unique features, including the 15-phrase 'realistic voice activator'. This, of course, is a feature Arnie himself could use, since most of the time he talks like a superhero doll who's fallen in the bath and gotten his voice activator waterlogged. I'd never really noticed before but back in the Nineties, when he was in a suit, he looked strangely like a lumpy Charlton Heston. Maybe Arnie is just a malfunctioning Chuck doll. Like most plastic figures, his physique has been exaggerated — rather in the way my Marie Osmond doll has, proportionately, a 72-inch bust; also, to judge from the amount of sex scenes in Arnie's films, he has no private parts whatsoever — like my Donny Osmond doll.
For all that, I'd say this was Arnie's most accomplished acting to date. In some ways, it's an obvious send-up of his Terminator image: in the course of the film, he gets savagely assaulted by angelic moppets, mall moms, department store Santas and a reindeer. Yet, unlike his other ill-suited roles, he plays the suburban nebbish with a charming bewilderment. He's backed by one of those casts that's just right in all departments — Rita Wilson as his wife, Phil Hartman as the creepy neighbor.
The screenwriter Randy Kornfield (where, by coincidence, I spent much of my own childhood, back in the days when we had to make our own entertainment) deserves much of the credit: in an age when most Hollywood comedies are little more than a series of unconnected sketches, this film, though short and brisk, has a rare logic, building from the first sold-out display through the crooked Santa who tries to palm him off with the Hispanic version of the doll to the inevitable climax, where Arnie becomes Turbo-Man. If there is a message, it's a reassuring one: yes, everything's crass and commercialized, but, if you believe, you can make it true. On the other hand, if you wanted to make a movie about a Christmas toy that's really hard to find, how about one that isn't made in the People's Republic of China?