I've been criticized in the past for disliking too many movies, and then taking it out on those discs with unforgiving technical analyses. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but I'm only a tough cookie because I love my readers -- I just don't want you to waste your money on a crap HD DVD. Unfortunately, those of you out there hoping that I might have undergone a warm 'n' fuzzy spiritual conversion after viewing the sweetness and light that is 'Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas' will be in for a disappointment, as this could well be my meanest review ever. I hated this stinking pile of reindeer doo-doo with every fiber of my being -- and the disc that supports is pretty smelly, too.
I do remember thinking/hoping that this long-awaited, big-budget Hollywood-ization of the Dr. Seuss classic might actually be good after Jim Carrey was announced as its star -- if anyone could make a Grinch in a furry green costume with a zipper come to life, it was him. I also remember my hopes sinking just as fast when I subsequently learned Ron Howard was going to direct. Probably the least edgy filmmaker in the history of cinema next to Chris Columbus, Howard tends to smother every potential opportunity for subtlety, nuance and wit with so much sentimental schmaltz that he makes mudpies, not movies.
Sure enough, when I finally saw 'Grinch' back in 2001, I had to get toasted just to endure it. It was one of those free press screenings they throw before subjecting you to what is known as the "media junket," an experience I usually enjoy. But this time the only thing that kept me going were those three apple martinis I downed before going into the theater (and that one quick potty break in the middle of the movie for a screwdriver). So my memories of the movie are a bit hazy, an experience I hoped to repeat for this HD DVD review -- a cosmo or two helps the horror go down so much better in high-def.
Five years later, buzzed again and trying to remain upbeat, I still find nothing in the 'Grinch' at all appealing. The script by Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman (who are jointly responsible for such offenses as 'Wild Wild West,' 'Doc Hollywood' and 'Last Holiday') is the most obvious of adaptations, restaging the key setpieces and characters from the original Dr. Seuss book with no cinematic flair, originality or surprise. The film's cinematography is downright ugly, with the kind of overlit lighting you'd see at a K-mart and garish colors that scream "Blue Light Special." Even the film's much-touted production design looks cheap and tacky, like a bad theme park attraction at Universal (which, as it happens, the 'Grinch' sets have become). Just the sheer act of looking at this movie again gave me a headache.
The film's casting looks great paper, until you realize an ensemble of great character actors has been squandered. Squint and you might be able to recognize Christine Baranski, Molly Shannon and Jeffrey Tambor under all that pig-faced makeup, trying to make the best of too-cute, too-neutered dialogue. And little Taylor Momsen, who as Cindy Lou Who, is a perfectly fine kid actor, but she has this Jon Benet Ramsey thing going on that is downright creepy (apparently Dakota Fanning wasn't of age yet -- oh, wait, she too did her Dr. Seuss turn, in the even more dreadful 'Cat in the Hat'). Worst of all, perky Cindy Lou gets an atrocious karoake song moment in the middle of the movie that has to be seen to be believed, rivaling the "When You're Alone" number from 'Hook' as one of the worst musical moments in cinema history.
So, is there anything in 'Grinch' that I liked? I have to come back to Carrey, who is this movie's saving grace. He reportedly clashed with Howard during production, which doesn't surprise me -- Carrey's subversive wit and relentless push to get something a bit more acidic into everything he does would seem to conflict with Howard's unstoppable mawkishness. Yes, this is still Dr. Seuss territory and the movie has to be faithful to the spirit of the story, but I would have loved to see what Carrey could have done with this material had another director been onboard, say a Terry ("Bad Santa") Zwigoff or even Richard Linklater, who was better able to balance cuteness with quirky comedy in 'School of Rock.'
I know, I know, you're saying that 'Grinch' is a kid's movie and I'm just a big old grouch. Maybe so. But I adore plenty of these types of movies -- from the original 'Miracle on 34th Street' to 'It's a Wonderful Life,' to any of the zillion screen incarnations of 'A Christmas Carol.' Unfortunately, as it is, 'Grinch' feels like a prefab holiday product, its sentimentality and cheerfulness packaged like a consumer good. I'd rather have a lump of coal in my stocking, thank you very much. And so, 'Grinch' just may be my pick for the most ingratiating holiday movie ever.
Okay, I said above that this HD DVD release of 'Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas' is rather "smelly." That's not really true -- it is just a little chintzy. Universal decided to go the combo route with 'Grinch,' and opted for an HD-15 single-layer/DVD-9 dual-layer combo. That means all of the extras (aside from an audio commentary) are on the standard-def side of the disc (had Universal wanted to, they could have given the film a little more room to breathe with an HD-30 dual-layer, 30Gb disc).
That said, I have to admit that technically speaking, 'Grinch' doesn't look that bad. In fact, the upgrade over the transfer on the standard-def flipside is immediately noticeable. This 1080p/VC-1 encode has superior depth and detail. And while the film still has an overcast, somewhat soft and mushy look that I don't care for, the sets of Whoville and the elaborate CGI backgrounds are sharper and more distinct. I could even make out some of the plastic pores and painted-on skintones of Rick Baker's makeup designs that I have to wonder whether we're supposed to see. Colors also have more pop, with reds in particular far more rich. The high-def transfer is also far less noisy and blurry than its standard-def counterpart -- while the source material appears to be the same, I bet the 'Grinch' could make a very good case for selling the masses on high-def. Only the darkest scenes suffer from slight noise in the shadows. I'm still not won over by the film's visual design, but I can't deny this transfer is quite fine.
'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' gets a typical Universal 1.5mbps Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track, and while it's not a showcase piece, it's definitely a solid effort (note that there is a DTS track, too, but it's only on the standard-def side of the disc).
'Grinch' has a lot of bells and whistles going on aurally -- this is a loud movie in the bad sense of the word, and really quite irritating to my ears. I found the high-end a bit harsh, but maybe it is just that Jim Carrey won't shut up and there is a lot of banging and clanking of objects going on. Otherwise, bass response is solid, and dialogue clear and well-balanced in the mix. Surround use is also fine, if unspectacular. There are some nice discrete effects at times -- the Grinch's first act tirade around Whoville and his Santa-delivering-presents sequence being nice examples. Subtle ambiance is less impressive, with less action-heavy scenes dull, and little atmosphere or score deployed to the rears.
Though all of the studios currently supporting HD DVD have been rightly praised for delivering tons of extras on their discs, not every release has the same supplements as their standard-def counterpart -- 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' is another case in point. The film was released in so many different configurations on DVD it truly is enough to make your head spin. Surprisingly, Universal has not packed the HD DVD of 'Grinch' with much of that material. Instead, they took the first disc of the DVD widescreen special edition and slapped it on the back of this combo -- and that version didn't even have the vast majority of extras found on other disc configurations of 'Grinch.' The only upside to all of this is that the vast majority of that material was wafer-thin, and I can't say I missed much of it at all.
The only extra on the HD DVD side of the disc is an audio commentary with director Ron Howard. Oddly, the standard-def side of the disc gets an Enhanced Viewing Option of the track -- so much for HD DVD being cutting edge (what, Universal, no U-Control!?). As far as the commentary itself, it is middle-of-the-road. Without the branching video segments of the Enhanced version, much of what Howard says feels like a precursor to a videoclip HD DVD users never get to see. Howard also tends to praise everyone on the crew, but offers little insight other than regurgitating what a character onscreen is thinking. The gaps of silence are also far, far too long. Perhaps because 'Grinch' was reportedly a contentious shoot, he avoids talking about Jim Carrey much at all. Unfortunately, this "commentary" is just too dull to warrant a listen unless you are a diehard fan. If you want to flip the disc over and watch it with the branching video clips, it is a much more fulfilling experience.
The only other extras are on the flipside, and they include a collection of "Whoville Recipes," the "Whobilation 1000 Games" activity, and a special Grinch "Public Service Announcement." Gone from this release -- on either side -- are the tons of featurettes, deleted scenes and other kid-friendly games on the various other editions of 'Grinch.'
'Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas' is not my favorite holiday movie. Okay, I hate it... but I would never begrudge anyone their perennial classic, so by all means enjoy away. This HD DVD, though, is rather lackluster. The transfer and soundtrack are fine, but the extras are not nearly as comprehensive as the multitude of standard-def DVD releases have been. But if you just want a disc to keep the kiddies occupied this holiday season, I suppose you could do worse.