Grade: B-

Universal has certainly hit the mother lode with Ron Howard’s live-action filmization of the classic Dr. Seuss holiday tale. His visually extravagant picture may lay on the whimsy and treacle too heavy-handedly (in the director’s characteristic style), and the narration by Anthony Hopkins is awfully restrained; but it boasts a central performance by Jim Carrey that’s so physically manic and verbally clever that he’s like a force of nature sweeping aside, at least temporarily, whatever reservations one might feel about the rest. In a pre-video era it would probably have been as much a perennial on the big screen as the Boris Karloff version has been on TV since it was first aired back in 1966; nowadays, it will surely enjoy enormous success this year at the boxoffice, then become a perpetually present VHS and DVD title and eventually be broadcast as often as “The Wizard of Oz” is. In truth, though, it lacks that 1939 classic’s richness and delicacy: “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” has a frenetic, insistent quality that in the end is rather exhausting (a result in large measure of the Carrey persona) and keeps it from fully achieving the charm and whimsy it’s obviously aiming for. But there’s so much that’s good about the picture–ironically, also the result of Carrey’s presence–that you can’t help but enjoy it, even when you’re a bit astonished at how far the star is willing to go and disappointed at how flat it seems when he’s out of sight.

Theodore Geisel’s little book had enough plot for a half-hour television cartoon, but of course its narrative line was too thin for a feature film, and so it’s been substantially expanded by scripters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman. Their first contribution is to provide a “back story” explaining the Grinch’s comic nastiness and detestation of both the holiday and the Whos celebrating it; unfortunately, the explanation (which seems based on the story of Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”) is merely to posit that the titular fellow was taunted as a child in the village, in the process losing the young girl he was infatuated with–an experience that sent him off to his hideaway on Mt. Crumpit and his life of lip-smacking villainy. (His hatred for Whoville is exacerbated by the fact that his chief tormentor is now its officious mayor, who also happens to be wooing the Grinch’s onetime beloved, Martha May Whovier.) We learn all this through the investigations of petite Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen), a much-expanded, and considerably older, version of the tiny two-year old who comes upon the Grinch stealing her family’s tree in Geisel’s tale. Here Cindy Lou, disturbed that the Whoville residents have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, engineers the return of the Grinch to the town’s yuletide celebration–an occurrence which turns out badly and leads to the creature’s decision to steal the holiday spirit. The conclusion follows the ending of the original fairly closely, though, in typical modern fashion, it adds a lot of daredevil action and slapstick to the mix.

Howard’s film is thus reasonably true to the outline of the classic story, but the additions also make it very different, not always in a positive way. We see a lot more of Whoville and its denizens than in the book and Karloff cartoon, and while that gives the designers room for lots of clever sets and costumes (with a subdued color hue that’s suggestive of the illustrations in the book), it also forces us to spend too much time with a bunch of comic characters who just aren’t terribly amusing. Little Cindy Lou’s family–Dad Lou Lou (Bill Irwin), Mom Betty Lou (Molly Shannon) and older brothers Drew Lou (Jeremy Howard) and Stu Lou (T.J. Thyne)–are pallidly nice and goofy, and Jeffrey Tambor’s Mayor May Who is a standard-issue smarmy politician. The only local who makes much of an impression, in fact, is Martha May (Christine Baranski), whose combination of sultriness and style sets her apart. (The makeup for the Whoville citizens is also curiously unappealing: they’re given snouts to render them slightly piglike, and in the case of little Cindy, though her nose is normal she’s forced to wear a complicated hairdo which wouldn’t have been out of place atop Queen Amidala in “The Phantom Menace.”) But the real problem with the Whoville sequences is simply that they’re just generically jolly, rather like what might have occurred had Victor Fleming decided to spend a half-hour or so among the Munchkins back in 1939; such characters are fun in small doses or lurking in the background, but when they take the spotlight the result usually proves surprisingly dull.

Then there’s cute little Cindy Lou herself. Taylor Momsen, who plays her, is a pleasant if hardly charismatic kid, but most of the material connected with her reeks of sentimentality, and in the two instances when she’s compelled to warble sticky-sweet new tunes by James Horner, the result’s pretty stomach-churning.

And yet as compensation there’s always Carrey, encased in a Grinch outfit that’s remarkably supple and expressive, contorting his body into almost unbelievable poses and spitting out laugh lines that sound as though they might have come from a stand-up routine. (One can only speculate on how much the final script reflects his improvisational skill.) Carrey glowers and grimaces, leers magnificently, delivers an endless series of “who”-based puns, and engages in countless asides that sound like the riffs he delivers at awards shows and in interviews; and while some of his shtick threatens to turn into a kind of extra-character cadenza, he never simply abandons the plot in favor of a joke, remaining a deliciously nasty fellow (albiet a decidedly contemporary one) until his conversion at the end. (It’s great, too, that he’s been allowed to retain the song “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from the Karloff version; it certainly puts Horner’s efforts in the shade.) Carrey also enjoys a great partner in his dog Max, played by a wonderfully expressive mutt named Kelley. Reaction shots of pooches are usually deadeningly overdone, but in this case the scripters have concocted some really good bits of business for the canine, and he pulls them off splendidly–needing the obvious assistance of animators only once in a while.

This new “Grinch” may, therefore, be somewhat deficient in charm (especially in the Whoville segments), and especially toward the close it overindulges Howard’s penchant for gross sentimentality. (With Clint, Rance and Bryce Howard among the supporting players, it also plays the nepotism card pretty hard.) But if you’re not allergic to Carrey’s machine-gun verbal delivery and slapsticky abandon (just think of “The Mask” and his Riddler in “Batman Forever”), you should find that his energy and desire to please more than compensate for the weak spots. And in any event you’re going to find the picture very hard to avoid–it’s bound to be on numerous screens of your local multiplex, packing them in, for months, and then filling the airwaves and video shelves for untold years to come. It may be a curious commentary on our culture that a movie whose main message is a criticism of holiday commercialism will probably be remembered more for its commercial impact than its cinematic success (just think of the dolls, playsets and burger-franchise tie-ins that must be imminent), but that’s just the way it is. And no Dr. Seuss or Little Cindy Lou Who is likely to change it.