Jim Carrey's ''Grinch'' -- Ron Howard's Seuss adaptation is ready for the big screen

By Jeff Jensen
Updated November 17, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Jim Carrey’s ”Grinch”

Ron Howard knows what you’re thinking: Why isn’t Tim Burton directing Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Universal’s big-budget adaptation of the holiday classic, starring Jim Carrey as the furry scrooge? Go ahead. Say it. He’s heard it all before anyway. The first time was last spring, during production. He was surfing the Internet for some showbiz scuttlebutt when he dropped in on some fanboys yammering away about how Howard — the soft-touch director of Cocoon, Willow, Parenthood, and Apollo 13 — seemed so wrong for the weird, whimsical world of Dr. Seuss. Howard admits that fantasy hasn’t been his forte, but goshdarnit if the naysayers didn’t put a bee in his bonnet. (Or is that a cat in his hat?)

”You know how athletes take something negative that’s written about them and put it over their lockers for inspiration? That’s how it felt,” says Howard, and indeed, those close to him say from that day forward, their boss directed like he had a wocket in his pocket. ”I took it as a challenge.”

On November 17, a nation weaned on Seuss can judge Howard’s work for itself when Universal releases The Grinch. Arguably the crown jewel among the 44 books rhymed and rendered by Theodor Geisel, who died in 1991, The Grinch is the first to get the live-action movie treatment. Hollywood has coveted the property for years, but it wasn’t until 1998 that the author’s widow decided a movie could provide franchise fuel for Christmases to come. ”The Grinch was on the way to becoming an icon,” says Audrey Geisel, ”but you can’t stop. You go to another medium.”

Whip-smart and steely, Geisel, now 79, forced producers to pitch their best Grinch in a creative bake-off. Reported to have competed against Howard and producing partner Brian Grazer: John Hughes and the Farrelly brothers. (According to a source close to Geisel, one studio even floated Jack Nicholson as the Grinch.) Howard’s proposal? ”Take How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, make that our third act, and spend the first two acts understanding — in a really funny way — why.” Howard’s why hinged largely on a new vision for the Whos, the saucer-eyed pixies whose Santa-delivered bounty is stolen by the nasty mountain-dwelling Grinch. Instead of being solidly grounded in the ”goodwill toward men” meaning of Christmas, Howard’s Whos would be easily distracted by its hustle and bustle. Geisel liked it, and liked it even more after Carrey hooked up with Howard and Grazer. ”Jim Carrey! Ron Howard!” enthuses Geisel. ”What’s not to like?”

Well, there was one thing: the humor. Howard — hell-bent on amassing a Simpsons-esque density of verbal and visual gags — got his laughs from screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), plus an uncredited trio of former Seinfeld scribes. Howard wanted things edgy, which he insists was neither sacrilegious nor a calculated play for the Scary Movie set: ”Seuss’ stories have bite, and I wanted to capture that.” But Geisel thought the first seven drafts had too much bite. Howard was contractually bound to make Geisel happy, and on the eighth try, she gave her blessing. ”That American Pie stuff has no place in Seuss,” says Geisel, whose only quibble with the finished film involves Martha May Whovier’s (Christine Baranski) pillowy cleavage. ”But given the times, I suppose that’s passable.”

Nailing the script was tough; nailing together the world was tougher. That assignment fell to production designer Michael Corenblith (Apollo 13), who pored through the author’s oeuvre and distilled from it a Seussian vocabulary of shapes and colors to build a world only suggested in the book and the 1966 Chuck Jones cartoon. On screen, Whoville is a winter wonderland where straight lines and right angles don’t exist, but zigzags and teetering columns abound. Everything seems made of frosting — except, of course, the Grinch’s trash-strewn cavern, whose inspiration was New York’s swirling Guggenheim Museum turned upside down. Those sets, which required 11 soundstages, weren’t built so much as sculpted from 10,000 blocks of foam. Corenblith, whose team also had to cram those spaces with a surfeit of stuff (appliances, furniture, vehicles, etc.), earns high praise from Carrey: ”The prop departments were like little kids, waving me in and going Come see what I’ve got! Everything in this movie is a character, even the ashtrays. Oh wait — there are no ashtrays in Whoville. But you know what I mean.”

Sure — but it’s almost impossible to imagine the grueling experience of wearing Carrey’s Grinch suit. It took three hours each day to get the actor packed inside the pear-shaped costume, designed by Oscar winner Rick Baker (The Nutty Professor) and sewn from hand-dyed yak fur. Though Howard tried to keep his Grinch comfortable by cooling the sets to 48 degrees, Carrey would sweat so much, he could peel the suit off like wet newspaper each night. Yes, Universal was concerned that concealing Carrey’s face could damage his marketing power, and several other getups were considered, including one, says Howard, that ”looked like I grabbed [it] off the stage from Cats.” But Carrey told Howard to do what was right for the production: ”The best directors are the ones you don’t want to disappoint, and I didn’t want to disappoint Ron Howard.” Besides, says Howard, ”everyone will know it’s Jim Carrey for two reasons: First, the studio would tell ’em, and second, he’s so distinctive, the minute you see him, there’s only one person it could be.”

True, but the accent Carrey created for the Grinch might leave people wondering a beat longer. ”I’m getting a lot of Sean Connery comparisons,” says Carrey, laughing. What he wants to convey is a Grinch that is literally teeth-grindingly bitter. ”The Grinch is hurt,” the actor explains. ”He wants to belong, but has put up such a defense system, he kind of doesn’t even know it anymore.”

Despite the film’s pop-psych approach to its anti-hero, Carrey’s Grinch is still frightfully mean — though not as scary as the film’s trailers might suggest. In a calculated move, Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen), the girl who reaches out to the Grinch, spends most of the PG movie laughing at him. Carrey says parents shouldn’t worry: ”I think kids are really going to like him. You know, he’s a furry character.”

The truly frightening question about The Grinch is this: Can it make money? Universal greenlit the film at $105 million, but sources say the budget rose to at least $120 million. The studio is underwriting the production with a monstrous merchandising and promotional push (”I will be the greatest shill Nabisco ever had!” Carrey promises), though it is ironic that a fable attacking the commercialization of Christmas should spawn cheese spreaders, electric mug warmers, waffle irons, shower radios, even eggnog.

”It’s an expensive proposition, but there’s the potential for tremendous upside,” says Kevin Misher, Universal’s president of production, noting that the studio already has a Seuss attraction at its Orlando theme park and two other Seuss movies in development: The Cat in the Hat and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! ”There’s value here beyond box office grosses.” But is the movie any good? Howard tested an incomplete print (lacking most of the 600 special-effects shots and Anthony Hopkins’ narration) months ago and says it garnered generally favorable reactions. As for the finished film, The Grinch‘s toughest critic has seen it — and she loves it. ”When the lights came up, I just felt so close to Ted at the moment. I got a little moist-eyed about that. He would have liked it very much,” says Audrey Geisel. ”I know no one else will have that sensation, but you asked me for mine. And mine was Whew!”

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

  • Movie
  • PG
  • 102 minutes
  • Ron Howard