A subtle story of subversion needs an equally subtle presentation, says Ty Burr

By Ty Burr
Updated December 06, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Shiner: Joan Marcus


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Dr. Seuss is better on stage than in the movie ”Grinch”

Last week in this space, I posted a heartfelt rant about the new ”Grinch” film — about how, for this viewer, the tackiness of the movie and the crass hypocrisy of the marketing juggernaut behind it poured a mountain of cheap tinsel on top of what was (and still is) a slender, elegant fable about the deeper meaning of Christmas. Most of the reader responses flamed me right back, and while I have serious trouble with the logic that says ”any movie that makes this much money MUST be good, so shut up already” (i.e., the tyranny of the majority means your dissenting opinion is no longer necessary), I have no problem with those people who defended the movie because, quite simply, they liked it.

One likes what one likes, and despite what you may think, it’s no different with working critics like myself and the rest of the EW gang. We’re just trained (if that’s the word) to back up our gut instincts with five dollar words and, where applicable, a knowledge of film history and the workings of the industry.

That said, and in defense of my innate revulsion for Ron Howard’s ”Grinch,” allow me to tell you about another Dr. Seuss adaptation I saw last week — one which was also approved by the widow Seuss and which I found perfectly okay. ”Seussical,” the problem plagued Broadway show, finally opened and, while it ain’t no ”My Fair Lady,” it’s far closer to the heart of Theodor S. Geisel than anything Jim Carrey is up to onscreen.

Now ”Seussical”’s not getting very good reviews, and it’s easy to see why: It sweats a bit too much. The creators of the show have seen fit to jam in a few too many stories at once: There’s ”The Cat in the Hat” and ”Horton Hears a Who” and ”The Butter Battle Book” and ”McElligot’s Pool” and ”Gertrude McFuzz” and ”Horton Hatches the Egg” — and that’s just in the first act. The songs (by ”Ragtime”’s Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty) are often lilting and just as often sold down your throat. While some of the cast members do heartfelt work (”Dirty Blonde”’s Kevin Chamberlin makes a charmingly low key Horton the Elephant), others have been coached for a full on, Fosse style pizzazz that doesn’t quite work in this setting (do we really need the Sour Kangaroo to be portrayed as that walking Broadway cliché, the Big Black Mama soul singer?).

And yet for all of its flaws, ”Seussical” knows exactly why Dr. Seuss books are still read, 10 years after his death and decades after they were written: The guy placed full faith in the power of the imagination to subvert authority. That includes parental authority, as the musical’s creators acknowledge in the scenes where the stuffy Mayor of Whoville and his wife worry about their son Jojo (brightly played by Anthony Blair Hall) and his tendency to ”think too much.” Geisel knew that kids think a lot more than their parents give them credit for, or even want them to. His message, over and over, is that imagination is a scary, beautiful thing. ”Seussical” gets that part down, just as ”The Grinch” reverts to that old Hollywood trope of children being wise, adorable innocents.

I took my 5 year old daughter to see ”Seussical.” She was enraptured from start to finish, even as the adults around her were shuffling their feet and checking their watches. She LIKED the fact that she could name check all the familiar story lines; she cackled happily at the colors and costumes and songs. If the play tries to appeal to all audiences and fails, at least it doesn’t exclude its natural kiddie constituency by being annoyingly hip. In that sense, my reaction doesn’t matter at all.

Why didn’t I take her to see ”The Grinch”? Because when she saw the trailer, she shrank back into her seat and said quietly, ”I don’t think I wanna see THAT!” Would her reaction have been different if she were a boy (or a tomboy)? Possibly. If she insisted on seeing it — she hasn’t — would I take her? Possibly. Does she know a stinker when she sees one coming? Well, OF COURSE I’m going to say yes — I’m her dad.


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