See It Instead: Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch.
Illumination’s take on the green humbug may stink, stank, stunk, so we pick three more holiday grumps to see instead.
The latest iteration on Dr. Suess’ classic Grinch is getting damned with faint praise by critics. Many reviews compare it to the classic Chuck Jones version, unfavorably. Instead of mushing into Whoville with the latest take on the green Scrooge, we round up three fine films brimming with Christmas (loathing) spirit to tide you over till yuletide. I think that’s how that word is supposed to work…
Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (2018).
The Grinch lives in his mountaintop abode with his faithful dog Max, looking down with disdain upon the Whos down in Whoville. The Whos love Christmas, a holiday full of light and noise and presents. The Grinch hates Christmas, and spends his days trying to figure out a way ruin the holiday for everyone. It turns out he didn’t always despise Christmas, but misadventures during the young Grinch’s life have turned him into the famous humbug he is today.
The Serious Pick: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966).
Same story as above, except with less filler.
The 1966 version of Dr. Seuss’ tale is a Christmas institution. The animation is quirky and endearing, based on the classic style of Seuss’ books. The story is funny and irreverent, with a simple premise embellished with comic zaniness. To adapt the short story to fit a TV special’s run time, it is adorned with several excellent musical numbers, including Thurl Ravenscroft’s “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”, which joined “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Clause is coming to Town” (both introduced around the same time in competing Christmas TV specials) as a Christmas favorite. Boris Karloff (The Mummy, Frankenstein) perfectly captures the devious and delightfully malevolent Grinch through his voice work, and even won a Grammy for his performance on the musical numbers.
Every aspect of this adaptation clicked. It has become so legendary in memory, it’s hard to believe it is only 30 minutes long. Other versions have tried to duplicate the success of the original, but none have ever captured the essence of Seuss’ story as well as Chuck Jone’s original. It’s no wonder, as Jones had worked with Seuss as an artist on other projects and approached him personally to adapt How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The devotion to the property shines through.
The Lighthearted Pick: Grumpy Old Men (1993).
Max (Walter Matthau) and John (Jack Lemon) are two curmudgeonly, old frenemies. Childhood pals, they split over romantic rivalry when Max married John’s sweetheart. Since then, the two have been bitter competitors in every field, gleefully trying to outdo and sabotage each other. Now that they are two widowers in the sunset of their lives, it looks like they may finally bury the hatchet…until a beautiful retiree (Ann-Margret) arrives during the Holidays and throws fuel on the old rivalry.
Lemon and Matthau manage to revive a comedic style that flourished in Vaudeville and early Hollywood during the era of Laurel and Hardy. They capture the feeling of two reluctant chums, forced together by fate, who’d just as gladly push each other down a flight of staircases. They’re caustic and snarky, and find real delight in tripping each other up and embarrassing each other. Despite all that, when they finally reconcile and renew their friendship, it’s genuine and heartwarming.
The script is fairly basic, but benefits from the practiced back and forth of the two leads and the escalating deviousness of the pranks each concocts to one-up the other. It’s also nice to see a film that deals candidly with the issues of aging while treating its characters like human beings instead of Hallmark greeting cards. For fans of classic comedy, Grumpy Old Men scratches the itch (and provides you with an equally funny sequel should you want another dose of Lemon and Matthau’s antics!)
The Unconventional Pick: In Bruges (2008).
Ray (Colin Farrell) and his mentor Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are hit men in hot water. During their last job, a stray bullet from Ray’s gun killed a kid, and the tragedy has shaken both of their resolves. To make matters worse, their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) abhors violence against children and wants Ray punished in a permanent fashion. The two killers hide out in the idyllic Belgian town of Bruges during the holiday, but the sights and sounds of Christmas do little to lift their dour spirits.
Martin McDonagh (3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) crafts a dark and violent comedy leavened with fantastic dialogue. Between gouts of blood and gun play, Ken and Ray wax philosophical. Gleeson’s Ken is a scholarly murderer, fascinated by morality and mortality. Farrell’s Ray is a fatalistic and glum executioner, seeing life as an absurdity best resolved with a shrug and a bullet. They get into increasingly bizarre circumstances, yet remain humorously agnostic about the whole affair. By the time Fiennes arrives to take care of his missing assassins, the plot has become a complete farce, yet everyone continues to play it straight. It’s not quite a Christmas film, per se, but it certainly has enough humbuggery to put a crooked grin on any Grinch’s face during the holidays!