In a fantasy world located in the innards of a snowflake, the snout-nosed inhabitants of the town of Whoville prepare for Christmas. But up on the mountain, The Grinch, a deeply bad-tempered vision in green fur, loathes the time of year and plans to ruin Christmas for everyone.
Ah, the joys of Christmas. Barely bearable stress, family fallings out, drunken drivers blearily mowing over children out practising on their new bicycles and a dramatically increased suicide rate. But, worse than all that, at least for movie fans, it's the time of year that Hollywood, upchucks its most poisonously sentimental dreck. Witness the likes of Santa Claus (1985) , The Santa Clause (1994) , or the frankly criminal Jingle All The Way (1996) (interestingly enough, movies that wind up "Christmas classics" tend not to be about Christmas, to wit The Wizard Of Oz (1939) or It's A Wonderful Life (1946), neither of which rely on the "festive season" to work their yuletide magic but rather simply embody its spirit).
Happily The Grinch, based on American children's classic The Grinch Who Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor S. Geisel) just about avoids the usual cloying nastiness of American Christmas celluloid for two reasons. Firstly, it's directed by Ron Howard, a past master at deftly delivering sentiment without sentimentality, but more importantly, it stars Jim Carrey in the title role - indeed, the only real role in the movie. For here is yet more evidence that Carrey is quite likely the most talented, inventive comic actor plying his trade today. And with The Grinch, he may well have realised the most entertaining, and in the end, almost moving live action children's characters put on screen.
The Grinch is pretty much plotless. A little girl, Cindy Lou Who, wonders whether the evil Grinch really is all that dastardly and tries to befriend him. The Grinch isn't having any of it and attempts to ruin the Christmas celebrations until, lo and behold, he, and the feckless Whos, discover the much-vaunted "true meaning" of Christmas.
There are all the ingredients of the usual yuletide vomit-fest here, including a horrifically misjudged moment at which the poppet bursts into song and tunelessly burbles Christmas, Why Can't I Find You (co-written by Mariah Carey!) like some lamentable latter-day Annie. But Howard manages to mitigate the potential sucrose overload with precision casting, including Tambor as the pompous mayor of Whoville, plus some inventive production design and a camera that refuses to stay still enough for anyone to get totally bored.
But in the end, this is Jim Carrey's movie. His performance, delivered through a full-face prosthetic which prevented him breathing through the nose and resulted in his adopting a voice somewhere between W. C. Fields and Sean Connery, is quite simply a masterpiece of controlled sentiment, perching brilliantly on the cusp of pathos and dangerous anger. He alternately rages against the Whos and their shallow happiness and contemplates his own misery (at one point reading out his organiser, which includes the appointments "8 pm, solve world hunger - tell no one. 9pm, stare into the abyss." It's a bravura performance loaded with energy, wit and delighted malice, and manages to eclipse the otherwise occasionally irritating preachy tone.
It's not entirely ludicrous to suggest that it is well worthy of an Oscar nomination, and given The Academy's disgraceful past snubs to Carrey, maybe the Christmas spirit might reach that far.
But then again, this is, in the end, Hollywood. And you will therefore be unsurprised to learn that, while The Grinch finally comes down on the side of a non-commercial festive season, Grinch merchandise, cross-promotional tie-ins, action figures and no doubt Grinchburgers will be on sale at a retail outlet near you this December. Bah, as someone once said, humbug.
Without Carrey this would be just another Hollywood Christmas money-making machine, but Carrey, with another ground-breaking performance, single-handedly elevates it to something much better.