Charles Schultz was right.
I think I accepted the anti-commercialization message of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when I was very young, even if I didn’t give it much serious thought. As I grew older, it soon became apparent that Christmas ceased being a spiritual event (for the entertainment industry anyway) years ago. Two hundred airings of “It’s A Wonderful Life” won’t take away the pain that a handful of contrived CBS Christmas movies and “very special Holiday episodes” on NBC inflict upon us every year.
Idealism in American entertainment, as in America itself, died a lonely, horrible demise during the death rattle of the Vietnam War. Televised offerings like “Charlie Brown” and 1966’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” were replaced in favor of safer, more profitable fare like an umpteenth remake of A Christmas Carol and “The Star Wars Holiday Special.”
Okay, so maybe they weren’t all that profitable.
Some will assert that I’m mistaken; that America is not more cynical and has not succumbed to suffocation by niche marketing or Coors Light commercials, and that’s fine. Somebody has to watch those CBS shows, after all. Others will point to the fact that Hollywood still produces big budget Christmas pictures like “Scrooged,” “The Santa Clause,” and, lest we forget, Jim Carrey’s 2000 remake of The Grinch as evidence that Hollywood still has some soul. These people are, in a word, deranged.
The last twenty years or so saw the number of film remakes fed to American audiences explode like a backed-up toilet across the landscape. While a scarce few of these efforts were reasonably fresh and innovative retellings of older tales, a more common variant were those films that appeared to have been made strictly to cash in on the original (“shot-for-shot” efforts like Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, anyone?). Eddie Murphy reviving his career in the 1990s by pillaging the legacies of Jerry Lewis and Rex Harrison should have sent up the signal flares warning us of the impending drought of originality, but that wasn’t the case. Before long, studios were forced to turn to that other great sucking chest wound of creativity: television.
Studios have been making movies out of TV shows for decades. And for a time, Hollywood almost seemed to be showing some restraint. Cinematic treatments of “The Untouchables,” “The Addams Family,” and “The Fugitive” were almost enough to wipe “Maverick” and any odd-numbered “Star Trek” movie from our collective unconsciousness. Something happened around the mid-1990s, however. Studios, having bulldozed through the remains of classic TV shows, realized they could continue to draw audiences to movies based on…somewhat less than classic shows.
And thus, “McHale’s Navy.”
It gets better. The first of a slew of live-action movies based on TV cartoons came out during the last decade. The few cartoons that could truly be considered classic in our cultural lexicon (e.g. “The Flintstones”) were converted early on. These were soon followed by the likes of Brendan Fraser’s double whammy (“George of the Jungle,” Dudley Do-Right) and, ahem, Rocky and Bullwinkle.
And then, just in time for the 2000 holidays, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It was bad enough that parents were forced to sit through Jim Carrey’s 90-minute Nixon impersonation, but they did it for what was essentially a stand-alone: a cartoon based on a children’s story that ran 22 minutes on TV way back in 1966. The benefit, if you can call it that, of other movies-based-on-toons was that they could draw upon seasons worth of background material and characters in order to flesh out the story. Not only was the original Grinch a book you could read to a four-year-old in 15 minutes, but th-th-th-that was all folks (not counting an ill-conceived Halloween-themed sequel in 1977.) Was Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) too succinct? Was the character of the Grinch written so shallowly that we needed some backstory involving his sad childhood? Was the message so diluted by its brief running time that it needed Jeffery Tambor made up as a tallish rat to get it across?
You know the answer as well as I do: YES, because the new and improved Grinch doesn’t even qualify as a remake. It didn’t do anything so crass as to warp the original message, it threw the whole thing out the window with – while Ron Howard and company were at it – Dr. Seuss’ conception of the Whos, the Grinch himself, and any sense of whimsy or honest decency the original had. I admit, I was prepared to hate How the Grinch Stole Christmas because it tarnished my memory of the original. But I didn’t. I hated it because it was awful. Is Jim Carrey really that funny? Of course! Look at him yelling and flailing his arms. That’s funny, right? What’s that, a Who wife-swapping party? In a Christmas movie? A children’s Christmas movie? Hilarious!
Wait, I mean NO. Look, I love cartoons (classic and modern) as much as anyone else. I’ll always have a soft spot in my head for Daffy Duck, and some of that Japanese tentacle porn is pretty cool. But what I don’t need is to sit,
twitching spasmodically in a theater, while my memory of “Underdog” is violated in Panavision on the big screen (starring Kevin Spacey as Simon Bar-Sinister, no doubt). Many of today’s cartoons may indeed purely exist as vehicles for toy marketing, but don’t pretend you didn’t see that green, hairy, ham actor’s mug on everything from fast food toys to breakfast cereals. I won’t bother harboring any of the naiveté I mocked earlier by hoping the great West Coast Crap Factory will exercise some restraint in the future. I have more faith in my assumption that, eventually, they’ll simply run out of TV shows to remake.
So rather than team up with Japanese studios and put together a “Battle of the Planets” or “Star Blazers” (or hell, “Voltron,” throw me a bone here) move, Hollywood has continued to reach into its trickster bag of offal to produce live versions of Josie and the Pussycats and Scooby-Doo. I should actually have enjoyed those adaptations more, since making shallow, poorly executed movies out of “Josie” or “Scooby” could almost be seen as an homage to Hanna-Barbera’s primitive style of animation. The original “Grinch” had more going for it. And while the idea of three nubile young ladies thrashing away at injustice on their guitars filled me with the same kind of embarrassing tingling I’m sure each of you felt, I was overcome with nothing but a nameless black dread at the thought of Junior Prinze playing Fred. It’s just too bad they didn’t include some of that tentacle stuff, because in the parlance of the Scooby Gang, “I’ve got a hunch” it would’ve been a better movie.
Perhaps my sole consolation in all of this is the knowledge that Ron Howard’s “Grinch” will never achieve the cultural resonance of its predecessor. Like most remakes, it will be consigned to the bargain bin of film history, relegated to occasional viewing by families whose DVDs of “A Christmas Story” are irrevocably scratched. It will eventually be seen as a footnote in the grand holiday cinematic tradition. And that may be the best Christmas present of all.