Cruella De Vil and the Grinch are killjoys at heart, villains of denial who would take away such cherished rites of childhood as puppies and Christmas. Both began in children’s books (by Dodie Smith and Dr. Seuss respectively), were transformed into popular baby-boomer cartoons, and then reborn in movies where they’re embodied by one of America’s best actresses (Glenn Close) and one of Canada’s most inspired nutcases (Jim Carrey).
Maybe it’s that this is the second time around for Close and the canines, but 102 Dalmatians is a full-bodied and entertaining film which plays off the audience’s familiarity with Cruella’s story, while How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a disappointingly shallow take on Seuss’ affectionate absurdism, an ostentatious ode to costume and set design whose only saving grace is the maniacal energy of Carrey encased in a furry green carcass.
The first live-action 101 Dalmatians couldn’t decide whether it was about the outrageous Cruella or the winsome dogs, resulting in two disparate sensibilities uncomfortably fused together. Its sequel, 102 Dalmatians, is a surefooted Disney concoction, easily blending canine affection and human romance with thrills and humor (director Kevin Lima’s previous film was the boisterous animated Tarzan).
102 Dalmatians opens on a fascinating note: Cruella De Vil has been rehabilitated — actually reprogrammed — by a Dr. Pavlov (one of the little jokes snuck in for adults). Now she despises fur, absolutely adores dogs and is keen to convince everyone in London that she’s a new woman. “Call me Ella,” she insists with the slightly hysterical expression of the newly converted. It’s a terrific twist, one which allows Close the opportunity to reinvent the character through restraint, so when she finally bursts out as the old Cruella, her grand dame flamboyance is vibrantly real instead of canned and cartoonish.
“Supporting players” seems like a derogatory term, but Close’s co-stars (both animal and human) actually provide the essential support which makes Cruella’s latest escapade worth a look. The sweet-natured romance between the proprietor of an animal rescue mission (Ioan Gruffudd) and a parole officer (Alice Evans) is based on their inherent belief in second chances, as well as their use of dogs as surrogate children. Then there’s the rivalry between Cruella’s lapdog assistant (Tim McInnerny) and her newest partner in crime, Jean-Pierre LePelt (Gérard Depardieu), a fur designer whose outlandish style and inherent malfeasance match Ms. De Vil’s.
The best aspect of 102 Dalmatians is how director Lima reins in all the elements and takes a comic-relief character like Waddlesworth, a talking macaw (voiced by Eric Idle) who thinks he’s a rottweiler, and fully integrates him into the main plot (Cruella again kidnapping Dalmatian puppies to make her ultimate fur coat) while providing him with his own story (when he realizes he can fly).
This is not the case in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Director Ron Howard successfully showcases Carrey’s antic gifts but fails miserably in building a coherent movie around him. It doesn’t help that Howard trowels on thick, gooey sentimentality, and Seuss’ tiny tot, Cindy Lou Who, becomes a chatty 7-year-old (the consistently annoying Taylor Momsen) who questions the value of Christmas when all anyone seems concerned with is procuring presents.
If this weren’t bad enough, the Grinch himself is given a backstory — an incident of casual childhood cruelty — which explains why he hates Christmas. Isn’t it enough that his heart is two sizes too small? No, in today’s explain-everything-to-death mind-set, he can’t be a recluse without being: a) misunderstood by the unfeeling masses, and b) redeemed by an innocent (the aforementioned Cindy Lou).
What’s fascinating is that Carrey seems to belong in an entirely different movie, one laced with the cynical belief that Christmas is truly about vengeance and commerce, a forced celebration to bolster capitalistic economies and the myth of the nuclear family. He plays the Grinch as a trickster, a malevolent prankster anxious to disrupt the status quo. When he admonishes everyone in Whoville, saying that all their well-intentioned presents just end up going to him via the garbage dump where he lives, it’s a great moment of the outsider providing a truth that insiders can’t (or won’t) see.
But those realizations have no business in a movie which so embraces the gorging aspect of Christmas, where prosperity is celebrated above all. This makes the Grinch’s change of heart — when he steals all the material manifestations (gifts, trees, roast beast) of Christmas only to see that he can’t squelch the true spirit of the holiday — seem patently false.
Despite what they say, these Whoville residents will sorely miss all their stuff, because in the surface-only world of Howard’s film, that’s all they truly possess.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.