How Ron Howard Stole ‘The Grinch’

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

The-Grinch-Poster-1

“Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the perennially popular children’s book, was excellently adapted in the 1960s for television as an animated short.  Like the book it was based on, the program was concise and insightful, bringing the Grinch story to a widespread audience and making it a bona fide cultural phenomenon for the past half-century.  Given the animated program’s popularity and the tendency for filmmakers to put on the silver screen those things they adored when they were young, it was only a matter of time before somebody would turn it into a feature-length film.  That time came in the winter of 2000, and that somebody was Ron Howard.  And the failure he wrought upon Dr. Seuss is something the Whos still sing about.

For those of you who (somehow) don’t know the story of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” let me give you the quick version: the Grinch is a rather ill-spirited loner who lives outside of the town of Whoville.  Every year, the Whos of Whoville celebrate Christmas with much singing, gift giving, feasting and enjoyment, much to the annoyance of the Grinch.  One particular Christmas eve, the Grinch decides to steal all of the Whos’ food, gifts, and decorations in hopes that they won’t celebrate the holiday, only to find the Whos still rejoicing on Christmas morn.  This causes a change of heart in the Grinch, who realizes that Christmas has a much deeper meaning than he had thought, and so he takes everything he stole back to the Whos and celebrates whole-heartedly in the holiday.

It’s a nice, short children’s story, and the message is appropriately subtle.  The book, read thoroughly, can still be finished in a little less than a half-hour, which was also about the running time of the animated program.  You may wonder how such a pithy tale translated to a two-hour film.

Not well.

Let me be clear, I am not criticizing Howard & Co. for needing to add more to this story in order to fit it to film.  I am not criticizing them for exploring Whoville in greater depth, giving the Grinch more personality, or providing him more of a reason for disliking Christmas.  My issue is that this film changes the very nature of the story itself.

In the original story, what the Grinch failed to understand was the concept of the sacramental (see James’s review of ‘The Secret of NIMH’ for a detailed explanation.)  Gifts and feasts and songs are signs of Christmas—pointing to the charity, love and hope of the holiday—but they are not what the season is about.  Though it might seem strange, we, as humans, are more like the Grinch than the Whos in the story, for we often lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas amongst all of the clutter.  The altruistic Whos, then, are what we strive to be, understanding the important role of sacramentals, but never confusing them with or forgetting about the real meaning of the holiday.

Contrast this with what Ron Howard gives us in the film, which is a Whoville that is overwhelmingly materialistic and almost hedonistically obsessed with gifts, celebrations and parties (references to sex, adultery and alcohol—all of which are found in the film—should NEVER EVER belong in anything Dr.Seuss-related).  The Whos are a self-absorbed, self-righteous lot, hardly a model to live up to, hardly a great contrast to the Grinch, played far too extravagantly by Jim Carrey under heavy make-up.  Sorry, Carrey, the Grinch was grumpy and a little eccentric, never border-line insane.

As in the book, the Grinch hates the Whos, but here it’s completely understandable.  He hates them because of their arrogance, their selfishness, their blatantly shallow commercialism, and their underlying cruelty.  It is revealed in flashbacks that he lived among the Whos as a child, only to be mocked and ridiculed by them.  He might be over the top, and he might be a little crazy, but the Grinch’s resentment for the Whos and their holiday is hardly misplaced.  Unlike the book, the Grinch’s flawed understanding of Christmas doesn’t come from some misconception of the Whos and their ideas of Christmas, it is rather a direct result of the attitudes of the Whos themselves.  In that sense the Grinch is almost in the right.  Though he may not understand the meaning of the holiday, neither do the Whos.  The exception, of course, is a young girl, Cindy Lu Who, who seems to consummately grasp the real meaning of Christmas.  In the book she was a charming representative of the Whos’ good ways, here she is an exception to their rule.  Her message of goodwill would be endearing if it unfortunately weren’t so on the nose; the subtlety of the book has been replaced with a kind of embarrassing blatancy.  And unlike the book or the animated program, the film never quite effectively answers what role sacramentals play in the role of holidays.

This leads me to believe that Ron Howard, in fact, “stole” The Grinch. He borrows the characters as well as the setting from Dr. Seuss’s story, and he inserts them in a superficially similar, but far inferior, plot.  The combination of over-acting, extravagant but poorly designed sets, and bad cinematography don’t help much either, as they make the film oddly depressing.  The film’s humor does work semi-frequently, but again, it’s typically adult in nature and not really something for a Dr. Seuss story.  Worst of all, again, the film’s moral is too blunt to have the same effect it did in the book or animated program.

All of this is another way to say that ‘Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ is a mediocre film that attempts to cash in on nostalgia.  On it’s own, it’s worthy of a few laughs, and Carrey’s performance, while not faithful to Dr. Seuss, is at times admirable.  But as an adaptation of one of the most profound children’s stories by one of the most influential children’s writers, it simply does not deliver.

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Cult Classic: Bubba Ho-Tep

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: The premise may seem wild, but the message is sound.

Review: The whole of ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’ is more than the sum of its parts.  Its story is an orthodox but daring mix of Elvis legend and Mummy-lore with just a dash of Kennedy conspiracy theory.  Sounds a little ridiculous, no?  But beneath all that is a powerful tale of redemption; of a man, long having fallen from grace, who finds something to fight for before he fades.

According to ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’, the real Elvis Presley switched places with an impersonator long ago so that he could “get away from it all”.  It was the impersonator that died, not him.  Elvis lived on, quite content, until an accident sent him to a rest home in east Texas.  Now old, sick, and crippled, he spends his days lying in bed, contemplating the mistakes in life, and occasionally talking to fellow resident Jack, who claims to be John F. Kennedy, also never having died.

Things become (even more) strange when other residents start dying off mysteriously at the hands of a cursed Egyptian mummy who feeds on the souls of the elderly.  It would take too long to explain how the mummy got there, but to make a long story short, it’s up to JFK and Elvis to stop him and save their home.

The story deserves major props for originality.  It takes the stuff of the best campy B-movies and mixes it together into one nice package; and that’s probably also why it’s a little surprising to discover that the film actually has a lot of heart to it.  That’s because it really isn’t focusing on Elvis Presley or JFK or mummies.  What it’s really about is a man (who happens to be Elvis) who has fallen from grace.  And his is the most tragic of falls-from a youth worshiped as a god and adored by millions, to a sick, elderly shell of a man; accused of delusion for trying to tell others who he once was.

What the mummy really represents, then, is a chance for redemption.  For all the mistakes in his life, for everything that has gone wrong, Elvis has one last chance to make a difference, to save the other residents, to set things right.  And because of this, though dying, he will not fade; he will not go quietly into the night.  He will take a stand for something and go out in glory.  Redemption is the most powerful message for the human condition, that no matter what one has done or where he is in life, if he is willing to give himself, he can still find salvation.  That is what ‘Bubba Ho-tep’ is really about it.  Beneath it’s comedic, horror, and camp elements, this film is truly emotional.

Made for just one million dollars, this movie is a testament to the potential of low-budget filmmaking.  The performances of Bruce Campbell as Elvis and Ossie Davis as JFK are just plain awesome, as is Brian Tyler’s score.  The guitar driven themes are touching and add much drama and weight to the film.  Though at times unnecessary vulgarity and seeming plot holes hamper it, ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’ nevertheless succeeds thanks to a fresh, engrossing, and deep story with a wonderfully cathartic conclusion.  This is one for the books, boys.

Classic Review: Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  Stanley Kubrick brilliantly uses provocative social-satire to show the world the Cold War’s insanity.

Review: I enjoyed watching ‘Dr. Strangelove’ a lot, and had I been around to appreciate some of the attitudes and paranoia of the Cold War, I probably would have enjoyed it even more.  What makes this film so entertaining is that it shows the absolute worst-case scenario, that most dreaded fear for mankind-Nuclear Holocaust — but it does so in such a wonderfully humorous way.

And so we can’t help but laugh.  We laugh at the comically insane general who orders U.S. B-52’s to bomb the Soviets and purposely start a war.  We laugh at the crazily patriotic captain of one of the planes, with his cowboy hat and goofy southern accent, who vows to do his patriotic duty come hell or high water.  We laugh as the President of the United States and the Soviet Premier, who are evidently VERY good friends, argue about what to do, and we laugh at the bumbling politicians in Washington who scramble to call the bombing off, lest they set off a Soviet super-weapon.  We laugh because the situation is so absurd.  It’s so goofy and ridiculous and hilarious throughout.

But then the ending comes, and we see a montage of nuclear explosions (for the Russian super-weapon has gone off) that seems oddly out-of-place with the rest of the film.  All of the sudden there’s a sinking feeling in our stomach, and the last feeling of this film is that of sorrow.

Why such a sad ending?  It’s because Kubrick is reminding us of something: While incredibly funny, the seemingly absurd situation in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is not so far from possibility.  Sure, it seemed ridiculous in the film, but the threat of sudden, unexpected war, people not knowing what to do or how to stop it, and total annihilation is actually a reality.  The film’s insanity parallels that of the Cold War and really of all war.  Escalation, growing militaristic tension, and the constant hatred of the “other” can only lead to tragedy.  Had the United States and the Soviet Union persisted in this, we likely could all be dead now, much like the ending of the film.  It was only through reconciliation and reaching out on both sides that allowed for the Cold War to end, and even now there is still tension with other countries due to it.  Let’s hope we never run into an ending like ‘Dr. Strangelove’.

This film is one of Kubrick’s many cinematic masterpieces.  His strong sense of storytelling shines through brilliantly here, and his message is as powerful as any he has given.  Few people could have mixed something so funny with something so meaningful, and few movies are stronger for it.

Classic Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  Tim Burton’s magnum opus, with all of his shocks, laughs, and, most importantly, heart.

Review: Tim Burton may be the most stylistic filmmaker of our time. His films are dark, twisted, strangely humorous, and, when done well, carry tremendous dramatic and emotional weight. Burton peaked twice in the early 90’s with two films that captured his style’s essence. The first was the live-action ‘Edward Scissorhands’ in 1990. The second was the stop-motion animated ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ in 1993. And while they both contend for his best work, I think Nightmare just manages to edge out.

Ironically, though this may be his best film, Burton didn’t actually direct on it. That honor went to Henry Selick, a director who specializes in these kind stop-motion films. His other credits include ‘James and the Giant Peace’ and the recent ‘Coraline’. Burton did serve as a co-writer and co-producer, however, as well as providing the original idea; and this film certainly screams of Burton aesthetic and influence.

This is a holiday film and, as Burton described it, is something of the reverse of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’. Instead of someone trying to ‘steal’ Christmas, this movie tells the story of someone who finds it. Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, is the leader of Halloween Town, and, of all the ghouls who live there, he is the most frightening. Recently though, he has begun to tire of Halloween; it no longer feels exciting or fresh to him, and he’s secretly depressed. That is until one day when he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Town and discovers its titular celebration. He is overtaken by the wonder and joy of this new holiday and quickly embraces it as the perfect beautiful replacement for his old one. The only problem is that he gets carried away: he not only wants to celebrate it; he wants to run it. He wants to be in charge of it, as opposed to Santa Clause. Unfortunately for him, he finds Halloween-past and Christmas don’t mix easy.

It’s a story that has a lot of heart to it, and it’s told incredibly well. Jack’s tale is an introspective and meaningful account of someone’s quest to find happiness and meaning; and it also serves as a larger commentary on the Holiday culture in general. In the Western world, there’s a lot of build-up to holidays, but it’s common that the day itself and the time immediately afterword can be something of a let down. The theme of this movie seems to be that even though Holidays are important, it’s foolish to wait till the actual days or “Holiday Seasons” themselves to start celebrating the thoughts, ideas, and emotions they’re about, and it’s equally foolish to stop celebrating once the holiday is over. We need to always be mindful of what we’re thankful for, at some level always celebrating the things we have that give us joy. If we do that, then holidays will never be a let down. As my mother used to say, “It’s Christmas everyday in our hearts.”

As I said earlier, this film is entirely stop-motion animated, and it’s incredibly well done. All of the models and sets are very elaborate and have the trademark Burton/gothic feel to them. The choreography and movement that they pull off, especially during the musical numbers, is wonderfully graceful, no doubt thanks to Selick’s skilled direction. As a musical, it features very memorable work by Danny Elfman, with such impressive songs as “What’s This?” and “This is Halloween” buffering an outstanding score.

Burton’s made good and bad movies over his career, but when he hits something profound, he’s always dead on. ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is a beautifully crafted, excellently executed work and his true masterpiece. It’s both visually stunning and provocative, and it makes for wonderful story telling. There are few animated films, or holiday films for that matter, better than this. For Halloween or Christmas or anytime really, it’s more than worth a watch.

Cult Classic: Bottle Rocket

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A hilarious and humanistic coming-of-age story.

Review: If Frank Capra and Quentin Tarantino were kidnapped by a time-travelling Vincent Price and spliced into a single director, that entity would be known as Wes Anderson. In ‘Bottle Rocket’, his first feature film, which he co-wrote with lifelong friend Owen Wilson, he crafts an audacious and humanistic comedy.  When a filmmaker really loves the story he or she is telling, it shines through, illuminating all the premise’s cracks and corners.  This is one such work of love, bearing marks that have come to define Wes Anderson as a real auteur, a creator with a distinct voice.

‘Bottle Rocket’ is about three young men who sort of nonchalantly decide to become thieves.  The twist is, unlike most films with similar ideas, the trio aren’t what we’d call bad people.  In fact, despite comic indiscretion, they’re brighter, more optimistic and more ambitious than most young guys I know.  Their chief flaw is that they don’t really understand the problem with theft.  To them, it’s just another cool entrepreneurial venture.  In a lesser film, such a quirk might sink the narrative, but the writers are savvy enough to turn it around for their benefit.  By freeing the story from overt self-criticism, we’re able to spend more time experiencing the story from the characters’ perspectives.

This is basically a coming-of-age story.  The trio all find ways to define themselves in the end, though it takes time and the temerity to overcome an inevitable series of disasters.  One of the young men finds love with an uncommon maid at a motel, and their courtship is my personal favorite onscreen romance.  The film’s philosophical bent is towards a healthy humanism; in short, people are good. It’s common in the western world, due to Western Christianity’s influence, to forget this simple truth in pursuit of moral excellence.  Whether conscious or not, ‘Bottle Rocket’ makes for a good counterattack.  This idea of human normalcy being extraordinarily good in itself spills into the cinematography.  The compositions are great, filled with all the colors of the rainbow, well-arranged and brimming with good humor.

The film’s also pretty accessible.  The only hiccup is the language, which is occasionally very vulgar.  There is a “sex scene”, but I put that in quotes because it is not intended to titillate (it tastefully lacks nudity or any footage of the act), just to beautifully culminate the relationship.  It’s not about carnal passion, but joy, and that kind of emotion is rarely, if ever, employed for sex scenes in film.  I was pleasantly surprised by Wes Anderson’s discretion.

I highly recommend this film for young men on the cusp of adulthood.  It’s hilarious and packed with insight.

Buy It From Amazon!: Bottle Rocket: The (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Hot Fuzz

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  An extremely funny, intense, and cathartic buddy cop opus.

Review:  This is director Edgar Wright’s second pulse-pounding (what the hell does that mean?) entry in the ‘Blood & Ice Cream Trilogy’, which started with ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and concludes with the upcoming ‘The World’s End’.  It is certainly as excellent as ‘Shaun’ and shows definite improvement in Wright’s directorial abilities.  It’s often said that the best test of a director is to see if they can pull off an effective action sequence.  He got to play with action in his hit British series ‘Spaced’, but here he’s given free reign to let his imagination run wild.  The results are even better than most Hollywood pictures.

‘Hot Fuzz’ is in some sense a genre mashup like ‘Shaun of the Dead’.  The buddy cop template, typically set in the big city, meets with horror/mystery set in the English countryside.  Just like ‘Shaun’, both genre requirements are fulfilled.  Not only does it feel organic, it reinforces the major themes and makes the story more satisfying.  Why ‘Hot Fuzz’, a genuinely funny cop movie, is much better than this year’s ‘The Other Guys’, another genuinely funny cop movie, is that ‘The Other Guys’ has almost entirely random humor and a story without real power.  ‘The Other Guys’ may be good for a laugh, but ‘Hot Fuzz’ is actually a good story.

What is ‘Hot Fuzz’ really about?  The power of fantasy.  Nick Frost’s character, a wide-eyed, small town constable, obsesses over action films like ‘Lethal Weapon’, ‘Die Hard’, ‘Point Break’ and ‘Bad Boys II’.  For most of the film, Simon Pegg’s character, a supercop from London, insists on the real world responsibilities (like paperwork and taking notes) of real police officers.  Every one of Frost’s Hollywood-fueled fantasies comes in handy, though, when the narrative shifts into high gear.  By shooting for a ridiculous ideal, the duo is prepared for ridiculous problems.

The horror/mystery element brings in some seriously disturbing stuff.  Townsfolk are dispatched by beheading, explosions, being crushed, being stabbed by garden shears, and much more off screen.  The filmmakers work overtime to make the bad guys seriously intimidating.  Of course, this is all in the service of the extremely cathartic final battle sequence, but ye be warned!

‘Hot Fuzz’ is a legitimately effective buddy cop movie that rises well above the level of parody.  Thanks to Wright & Co, it turns out to be a great action movie, period.

Buy It From Amazon: Hot Fuzz (Ultimate Edition) [Blu-ray]

The Other Guys

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A surprisingly enjoyable and funny comedy that has enough class to show some restraint.

Review: I’ve seen better buddy cop films, better parodies of buddy cop films, and better wholesome comedies than ‘The Other Guys’. But in the latter part of the summer, among sucky vampire spoofs, lame romantic comedies, and the abominations of aging action stars, this film feels surprisingly fresh and original.

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg star as Detectives Allen Gamble and Terry Hoitz, two police men who, unfortunately, are confined to desk jobs while other, cockier cops get the action, the fame, and the women. Wahlberg’s character is particularly frustrated by his lowly role, as he once had a much more exciting one on duty until an accident demoted him. Everything changes when a small case of Allen’s reveals a much larger crime operation. Now is the chance for these two men to prove their worth as men of the law.

What makes this film work is an unusually high level of restraint and discretion. Most of the jokes don’t go for crude humor, but are actually sophisticated and funny (A lion/tuna fish joke near the beginning is quite amusing). The action, as well, is effective but also doesn’t go to any real extreme, and there really isn’t that much of it. Having seen ‘The Expendables’ the night before, I was relieved not to experience anymore pointless gunfire and explosions. Although I found 2007’s ‘Hott Fuzz’ to better satire buddy cop movies, ‘The Other Guys’ doesn’t do a bad job of taking jabs at the genre’s various cliches (The car chases, the frustrated police chief, volatile partner chemistry, etc.). Particularly though, I think that Ferrell’s character is what really makes this movie worthwhile. Unlike his usual over-the-top and immature characters, Allen Gamble is a mature, intelligent, and reserved human being. Seeing him interact with his sometimes vicious partner and the crazy situation in which he finds himself was the highlight of the film for me. I hope that, after this film, Ferrell is more willing and better able to get mature parts like this.

‘The Other Guys’ is a good movie. Not a great movie, but a good one. Its worth a watch and is guaranteed for some laughs. Now-a-days, that’s pretty nice.

Buy It From Amazon: The Other Guys [Blu-ray]