The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
For most of his life, Theodor Geisel, the children’s author who used the name Dr. Seuss, wouldn’t license his books for the screen. Geisel had written the 1953 musical film The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T., and he’d hated how it turned out. (He called it a “debaculous fiasco.”) But one guy changed his mind. Chuck Jones, the great Warner Bros. animator, had worked with Geisel on a series of animated shorts for the Army. They starred a character named Private Snafu, a serviceman who did almost everything wrong; he was created by Frank Capra and played by Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny. These cartoons were basically horny Looney Tunes shorts.
Years later, Geisel agreed to work with Jones again on a TV-special adaptation of the former’s 1957 kid-lit classic How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Boris Karloff, the ’30s horror-film great, narrated and voiced the Grinch, and Geisel wrote the script, including the words of the song “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The result, a half-hour animated special, was about as perfect as an adaptation could be. Geisel’s loopy, absurdist poetry and surreal, stylized art weren’t easy to translate. Only Geisel himself, working with one of the greatest animators in history, could be trusted to get it right.
In 1991, Geisel died of cancer at the age of 87. Seven years later, his widow, Audrey, announced that she was ready to start licensing out her late husband’s works to Hollywood. But she had conditions. If someone wanted to make a big Hollywood movie out of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, a big star and a big director would have to be attached. The various Hollywood studios put together their pitches, and Universal won. Jim Carrey, the biggest comedy star in the world at that moment, charmed Audrey Geisel, as did director Ron Howard. (Mrs. Geisel told Time, “I like the grown Opie.”)
Geisel and Universal settled on a deal—$5 million, plus a big chunk of profits—and a script went into development. Who Framed Roger Rabbit writers Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman are credited with the screenplay, but Audrey Geisel demanded multiple drafts, vetoing the bawdy and scatological jokes that were all the rage at the time. She must’ve missed the incredibly strange key-party bit that Howard snuck into the final product.
This is how Dr. Seuss’ simple, beloved classic became a bloated, clanging, artless blockbuster—the highest-grossing film of the year 2000, incredibly. The grown Opie’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas earned about $260 million at the domestic box office. That wouldn’t have been enough to make it the biggest movie of 1999 or 2001. (In either year, it would’ve been No. 3.) But in a year without Star Wars or Harry Potter—when the vastly lucrative film franchises of the new century were still in their planning phases—Howard’s rancid, dog-ugly Grinch movie earned just enough to skate past Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away and John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2.
In a lot of ways, 2000 might be the last true movie-star year: the death rattle of an era when actors, rather than intellectual property, ruled the domestic box office. The year’s big hits relied on towering established figures, faces that had histories in the American dream-life. Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible 2, Russell Crowe in Gladiator, Mel Gibson in What Women Want—these men were well-known quantities with personas that anyone buying a ticket would readily recognize. In fact, the only movie on the year-end top-10 list without a single central star is the one that portended changes to come: Bryan Singer’s X-Men, the film that truly launched the superhero-comic feeding frenzy that has become the main story of this century’s cinema. (You could also argue that Scary Movie wasn’t a star vehicle, but I was in middle school when In Living Color was at its peak, and I can tell you that those guys were all supernovas. That, after all, is how we got Jim Carrey.)
How The Grinch Stole Christmas is a weird hybrid: It’s a movie-star movie and an intellectual-property movie. Both the Dr. Seuss book and the 1966 TV special were fully embedded in the national consciousness. You would’ve had a hard time finding anyone who didn’t know who the Grinch was. But you would’ve also had trouble finding anyone who didn’t recognize Jim Carrey, the antic, rubbery energy-bomb who had succeeded Robin Williams as Hollywood’s most lucrative physical comedian.
On a certain level, it made sense for Carrey to play a figure from a Chuck Jones cartoon. Carrey had built his career by basically working as a live-action cartoon—literally, in the case of 1994’s The Mask, one of his biggest early hits. In the 1994 calendar year, the former Fire Marshall Bill had made Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask and Dumb And Dumber—the kind of dominant hat-trick breakout year that we will probably never see again. From there, Carrey’s big hits—Batman Forever, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Liar Liar—raked in amounts of money that are now mind-boggling to consider. Carrey also craved institutional approval, but his serious-actor moves, like 1998’s The Truman Show and 1999’s Man On The Moon, didn’t win him the Oscars that he so badly wanted. (He didn’t even get nominated.) So you can see why Carrey would’ve gone for a home run as obvious as The Grinch. After all, if nobody’s handing you any statues, you might as well go make some money.
Carrey was reportedly a nightmare on the Grinch set. The great makeup artist Rick Baker had designed utterly demented makeovers for everyone in the cast. For some reason, Baker and Howard envisioned the Whos down in Whoville as repulsive rat-faced mutants. Carrey, meanwhile, had to spend hours every day being coated in dyed-green yak fur, and he hated it. Years later, Carrey’s makeup artist, Kazuhiro Tsuji, told Vulture that the star would disappear from the set for hours at a time without explanation, and he’d return with his costume trashed. Tsuji also says that Carrey berated him so badly that it drove the artist to therapy.
I’ll tell you one thing, though: Jim Carrey tries. He puts every ounce of his manic, ticcy, enervating energy into bringing the Grinch to life. He minces and growls and frowns and mugs. The movie gives him a long, long leash to riff and dance and ramble, and he uses all of it. Even under all that yak fur, Carrey is instantly recognizable for his mannerisms alone, and he puts on the full Jim Carrey show. I like the bits where the Grinch puts nails in blenders to try to drown out the Whos’ carols, or where he does his best to scare little Cindy Lou Who (young Taylor Momsen, seven years before Gossip Girl and more than a decade before alt-rock radio stardom). Also, the Grinch’s dog is cute.
Unfortunately, Carrey is so utterly invested in the Jim Carreyness of it all that he never even attempts to sell the final transformation, the moment where the Grinch comes to understand the meaning of Christmas. When the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes, Carrey plays it as a series of spasmodic contortions, immediately short-circuiting any pathos that the scene could’ve generated. By the end of the movie, we never get any real sense that the Grinch is a changed character.
But it’s not like Ron Howard gives Carrey any help here. The film represents a series of deeply baffling decisions, a true mass-entertainment endurance test. Howard makes almost all the Whos into shrill, gibbering monsters, and he cranks up the whole movie’s tone so that it’ll be as antic and restless as Carrey’s performance. To pad a little children’s book out to feature length, Howard gives the Grinch a backstory about being rejected by the Whos as a kid, and he also adds Christine Baranski as a superfluous love interest who seems extremely horny for the Grinch every time she’s on screen.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas is also one of the ugliest big-budget films that’s ever come out of Hollywood. Everything glows in the same shade of neon slime green that was so popular in the ’90s that Surge built a whole brand identity out of it. (Carrey must’ve been really into that shade of green; there’s a ton of it in The Mask and Batman Forever, too.) The sets look like they were constructed from ground-up styrofoam. It’s wild that anyone paid to sit through something so unpleasant, so assaultive.
Howard’s Grinch film is an atrocity, a movie that simply should not be. It transforms a lovely little children’s fable into a howling, drooling, attention-addicted engine of irritation. It tells a story about the crass commercialization of the holidays in the crassest, most commercial way possible. It argues against its own existence, to the point where it’s almost avant-garde in its hatefulness. Ron Howard has made some entertaining films in his day, and he’s often shown some sense of control. Willow and Parenthood and Apollo 13 are all good times at the movies. So I can’t help but imagine that, with The Grinch, he made something shitty on purpose, to spite the world.
Amazingly, the Academy gave Howard the Oscar for Best Director barely a year later. (He won for his Grinch follow-up, the deeply mediocre A Beautiful Mind, beating Robert Altman, David Lynch, Peter Jackson, and Ridley Scott, all of whom were nominated for vastly superior films.) In the years that followed, Hollywood cranked out more Seuss adaptations. In 2003, Mike Meyers starred in a live-action Cat In The Hat movie that was every bit as aggressively bad as The Grinch. But Meyers’ movie was a box-office disappointment, and Audrey Geisel hated it. She refused to allow any more live-action adaptations of her late husband’s books, ever.
Still, there have been animated Seuss movies—including, in 2018, a feature-length Grinch cartoon that pulled in a half-billion dollars at the global box office. Dr. Seuss might not have wanted his books turned into movies, but when there’s money on the table, Hollywood won’t take no for an answer.
The contender: 2000 might have been the end of a moviegoing era, but that doesn’t mean that it was a great moviegoing year. Some truly great films, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Erin Brockovich, are right outside the year-end top 10, but the year’s biggest hits are generally either adequate Saturday-afternoon cable-viewing shrugs (Gladiator, The Perfect Storm) or utterly insane visions that now seem like relics of lost alien civilizations (What Women Want). This was the peak of the Y2K-era Hollywood trend where, for some reason, half the big movies had heroes who died at the end—something that probably started with Titanic and reached its logical conclusion with The Passion Of The Christ, a whole film about a guy dying. Maybe that’s why the public turned en masse toward comic-book movies in the years ahead. Maybe we just got sick of seeing our protagonists destroyed.
All of which is to say: I think the much-maligned Mission: Impossible 2 pretty much rules, and it’s easily the best of 2000’s top 10. For a brief and glorious moment, Hong Kong action great John Woo got the keys to the kingdom, and he went wild with them. True, Mission: Impossible 2 is nowhere near the best of the franchise, and its convoluted story and wooden villain aren’t the least bit memorable. But it’s got Tom Cruise powersliding a motorcycle under a truck and throwing a slow-motion front-flip legdrop, and that’s good enough for me.
Next time: With Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone, Chris Columbus ushers in a new age of name-brand entertainment and fearfully slavish adaptation.