Our reviews of Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas (Blu-Ray) (published October 13th, 2009), Dr. Seuss's How The Grinch Stole Christmas: 50th Birthday Deluxe Remastered Edition (published December 13th, 2006), Hats Off to Dr. Seuss (Blu-ray) (published March 3rd, 2013), and How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) (published December 18th, 2001) are also available.
You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch!
We all knew this live-action version of Dr. Seuss's classic story had its work cut out for it. There are those—including the late Doctor himself, apparently—who find the 1966 cartoon version to be perfect, and this new live version to be completely superfluous and frankly something of a heresy. It is a story many of us have grown up watching year after year, and so this newcomer had the advantage of a ready-made, built-in audience. It also had the disadvantage of trying to live up to so many deeply ingrained Christmas memories.
Facts of the Case
The story is so familiar that I will take just a few moments to refresh your memories. The Grinch (Jim Carrey—Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, Liar, Liar) lives high on Mount Crumpit, overlooking the peaceful village of Whoville, where we find the happy people known as the Whos. As Christmas approaches he decides to make their lives miserable by taking away all the trappings of Christmas—their biggest holiday of the year. In the end, the Whos celebrate Christmas anyway, since they know the true meaning of Christmas, and the Grinch is so moved that he becomes a nice person and they all live happily ever after.
Let's cut to the chase, shall we? Universal's release of The Grinch on DVD is billed as a Collector's Edition and it certainly lives up to the name in terms of special features. It is absolutely packed with extras so much so that I'll give you a quick listing:
• Max's Playhouse. This features a number of fun kid-oriented activities, including a "Rhyme Time" game, a "Dress the Grinch" game, and an animated storybook entitled "The Care and Feeding of a Grinch." There is also a Music Time section with sing-alongs for "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and "Where are You, Christmas," two songs that feature heavily in the movie. There is also a Faith Hill music video of "Where are You, Christmas." Finally, there is a short, cute presentation entitled "How Do I Find Things," which teaches kids how to navigate around a DVD menu using the remote. Depending on your point of view, this may be more information than you want your kids to have.
• Spotlight on Location. This seven-minute featurette is fairly standard stuff, but does spend some time focusing on Rick Baker's makeup designs for the movie. Video quality for this featurette is disappointingly blurry.
• Deleted Scenes. A compilation of about nine minutes of deleted footage, extended scenes, additional footage, et cetera. Interesting, but nothing spectacular.
• Outtakes. Unfortunately, a carefully edited "gag reel," mostly of Jim Carrey's antics on the set.
• Who School. At a running time of 5:40, this featurette tells about the work that went into creating the distinctive physical look for the Whos, as well as teaching the actors how to move and act like Whos.
• Makeup Application and Design. A six and a half-minute look at Rick Baker's design for the Grinch's unique look and the balance that had to be struck between the makeup and Jim Carrey's need to use his facial expressions.
• Seussian Set Decoration. A look at the process of transferring two-dimensional line drawings in Dr. Seuss's books to three-dimensional sets.
• Visual Effects. A lengthy look at the delicate CGI and other visual effects work that went into creating Whoville and the Grinch's adventures.
• DVS—Descriptive Video Service. This is the first DVD I have experienced with narration to assist the visually impaired. This track was very well done. It was surprisingly effective and remarkably unobtrusive.
• Wholiday Recipes. Recipes for three Who holiday treats. Two sound pretty tasty, but one sounds rather questionable.
• By the Numbers. A collection of statistics about the production that should amuse trivia buffs or would-be movie producers.
• Theatrical Trailer. Pretty self-explanatory, I think.
• The Grinch's Special Offer. In reality, a promo for the Universal Studios theme parks in California and Florida. Crass marketing perhaps, but it worked on me—I've got my flight booked.
• Production Notes. Here we learn that Dr. Seuss resisted attempts for years to make a live-action version of The Grinch, contending that the beloved 1966 cartoon version could never be outdone. The notes go on from there are quite lengthy and detailed.
• Cast and Filmmakers. Bios and headshots of nine people who worked on the film, ranging from director Ron Howard to young Taylor Momsen, the actress behind Cindy Lou Who.
• Recommendations. A completely useless collection of thumbnail pictures of other Universal DVD cases.
• DVD Newsletter. A plug to get you to go out on the web and subscribe to Universal's DVD email newsletter.
• Game Trailer. A trailer for a computer game based on the movie.
• DVD-ROM Content. These include DVD-ROM accessible selections for many of the items listed above, as well as Sound Snippets, a Grinch screensaver, a downloadable Grinch Screenmate and custom browser, and a demo of the above-mentioned Grinch game. Unfortunately, I could not get this demo to work on my wife's trusty Toshiba laptop, so I don't know if it is any fun or not, but it looks cool based on the trailer.
All told, there are special features to keep young and old entertained for hours. As is often the case they vary in degree of interest and usefulness, but the sheer volume is impressive. Sorely missed is a commentary track by Ron Howard, since his interesting and informative Apollo 13 track is still one of my favorites, but I guess we can't always get what we want.
The audio on this disc is impressive as well. In addition to the DVS audio option mentioned above there are three standard audio tracks. We have a DTS 5.1 track, a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, and a Dolby Digital 5.1 French track. Both English-language tracks are crisp and clear and make excellent use of the surround channels. There are a number of action scenes in this movie that benefit very nicely from well-done surround audio. The DTS track, as usual, is a marked improvement over the Dolby Digital track, but both are very nicely done.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
But what, you may ask, about the movie itself? Does this Grinch really measure up to the holiday classic we all know and love? Well, no, it doesn't. In the effort to pad the original 22-minute running time out to feature-film length, we get a lot of new information that wasn't contained in the original. We learn a lot more about the Whos and their lives. We learn a lot more about the Grinch, where he comes from, and why he is as mean as he is. Along the way we learn that less sometimes really is more. I didn't need to see how the Grinch first arrived in Whoville as a baby on Christmas Eve. (I certainly didn't need to see Whos having a wife-swapping key party in the background, either.) I didn't need to see the Grinch as a child, suffering rejection and cruelty from his schoolmates, thus leading him to hate Christmas and the whole Christmas season. As the good Doctor wrote in the original book: "No one knows why; no one quite knows the reason." Ron Howard and his accomplices should have left it at that.
We also see a lot more of the adult Grinch than we really want to. We see him living in his dank, smelly, garbage-infested cave high on Mt. Crumpit. Here we learn of his wide variety of eccentricities that go far beyond just casual hatred of the Whos and Christmas. The scenes in the Grinch's lair are rather unpleasant and over-the-top, and just too gloomy to be much fun. Making matters worse, the movie spends far too much time in the cave.
Speaking of unpleasant and over the top, we come to the performance by lead actor Jim Carrey in the title role. Carrey's performance is so wild and unrestrained as to be totally grotesque and off-putting. He manages to take W. C. Fields, Jim Backus, and Jerry Lewis and combine them into one strange Frankenstein monster of a character. He manages to restrain himself and give a good performance in a few isolated places, but most of the time he engages in his usual self-indulgent trademark antics. This is nowhere more pronounced than his rendition of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," which takes on a twisted cabaret-style air.
As long as we are on the subject of Carrey, a comment on his makeup is in order. Rick Baker did an outstanding job with the various designs for the movie, especially the Grinch. Still, I am reminded of something that was said when Tim Burton's Batman was released. The comment was made at that time that a lot of careful design went into the Joker's makeup; after all, if you are paying for Jack Nicholson you want to make darn sure the audience sees him. I wonder if the same thing might be said for Jim Carrey. On the other hand, Carrey's physical hijinks are more of a trademark than is his face, so perhaps the same logic does not apply to him.
The rest of the cast is passable in their roles, but their characters and lines are so mundane that they are quickly forgotten. Christine Baransky is a delight in her role as Martha May Whovier, the Grinch's long-lost old flame; it's just a shame that the character was included in the script in the first place. Sir Anthony Hopkins is wonderful as the narrator, filling the big shoes of Boris Karloff with ease. Perhaps the most delightful discovery in the cast is Taylor Momsen, who was barely six years old when the movie was made. She's adorable without being cloying, and seems like a very promising child actress.
On the other hand, special recognition has to go out to the whole production design team that worked on The Grinch. The buildings, furniture, and all sorts of interesting little doodads on screen look exactly like illustrations from a Seuss book come to life. From the Who houses to their refrigerators and telephones everything looks just perfect.
Finally, the video presentation on this DVD is not what I would have expected for such a high-profile picture. Granted, it is completely free from dirt, scratches, and other blemishes; I would expect no less for such a recent movie. Throughout the movie the image is just slightly soft and out of focus, so that there are no sharp edges or definite textures. On the plus side, this means that there is no edge enhancement to worry about. Colors seem to be unnaturally muted, so that the entire movie has a soft, bland look to it. This may not be a fault of the DVD transfer so much as the original print; I know that some critics reviewing How the Grinch Stole Christmas on its original theatrical release mentioned the same problem. Whatever the case may be, it certainly detracts from the already limited pleasure of viewing this DVD.
Call me stubborn, call me old and set in my ways. I like the cartoon version, and this live-action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas tries way too hard to fix something that isn't broken. This new version fails to capture the whimsy and charm of the old cartoon. All the humorous bits seem forced, and overall this version has no feeling of joy or fun.
Ron Howard and his accomplices are guilty of tinkering with a beloved holiday classic. Shame on them.
Universal goes free on a split decision: the extra content is excellent and the audio is great, but the video does not live up to expectations—especially for a movie released less than a year ago.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Max's Playhouse -- Songs and Games for Kids
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