Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Who would have thought Ron Howard — director of such soft-centered, mushy fare as “Cocoon” and “Parenthood” — could come up with something as imaginative and charming as the new live-action adapatation of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”?

Indeed, many wondered why Tim Burton, that quirky king of odd-looking movies, wasn’t directing this, the first live-action version ever made of a Seuss book. Wouldn’t his have been a lot edgier?

Yeah — and it probably would have been too edgy. Howard’s version is a visual treat, from Rick Baker’s extraordinary makeup to Michael Corenblith’s production design, and full of mildly subversive humor (the Grinch, in disguise, hands a hacksaw to a youngster and urges her to “run really fast” with it). But it also maintains a level of charming blandness — the sort of movie you’d imagine Opie or Richie Cunningham concocting, one that’s laugh-out-loud funny with a minimum of smacking you in the face with its own weirdness. We grownups might secretly like to see an even more whacked-out production, and the story certainly lends itself to such a notion, but it never would have been approved by Seuss’ widow, who maintained a great deal of control and didn’t want her husband’s child-friendly work tarnished. Ron Howard is probably one of the best directors for an order that tall: stay true to the original material, update it for the ’00s, and make it appealing to everyone.

Everyone’s familiar with the story, and nothing has been changed, though a few elements have been added. The monster-like Grinch (Jim Carrey) lives high atop Mt. Crumpit, overlooking the town of Whoville and despising the Whos and their exuberant Christmas celebrations. Finally having had enough of it, he plots to steal all of the Christmas accoutrements, only to discover that yuletide cheer doesn’t come from store-bought things anyway, and that it’s impossible to steal the Christmas spirit.

What’s been added is a backstory for the Grinch. Seems he appeared mysteriously in Whoville as a baby, and was raised by two spinsters. As a child (played by Josh Ryan Evans), he was mistreated because of his odd appearance, and subsequently left town to live as a hermit up on the mountain.

This makes the Grinch quite sympathetic, and puts the blame back on the Whos. Little Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen), the cutest little puddin’-head ever photographed, seems to realize this and seeks to bring the Grinch back into polite society. It is after this effort goes awry that he seeks his Christmas Eve revenge.

Jim Carrey is extraordinary as the Grinch. Despite the elaborate costume and makeup, it’s still Carrey under there, cracking jokes and making the role as funny as anything he’s ever done. (Checking his schedule for the day: “Four o’clock, wallow in self-pity. Four-thirty, stare into the abyss. Five-thirty, jazzercise.”) I don’t know how much ad-libbing was done, but a lot of the Grinch’s lines sound like Jim Carrey having fun. The Grinch isn’t just an old grump; he’s a powerfully entertaining figure. Jim Carrey carries this movie.

The aforementioned middle-of-the-road sensibilities of Ron Howard do the film a few disservices, too. The story is drawn out too much, with so much resolution after the Grinch’s change-of-heart climax (kindly do not accuse me of spoiling anything; it’s your own fault for not already knowing this story) that it’s hard to feel much emotion when things finally do end. There’s also a show-stopping (in a bad way), out-of-the-blue song by the adorable little girl, and a couple ill-conceived crude jokes that stick out like sore thumbs.

Still, only a real Scrooge (or whatever) could fail to enoy this tasty little holiday morsel.

B+ (; PG, some slightly crude humor, mild scariness.)