Dr. Seuss-based theatrical films have not always had the best track record in theaters. They may make money, but many fans consider nearly all of the feature length movies based on the author’s work to be an injustice to his legendary books in some way. But two movies shine above the rest as the most infamous, 2003’s “The Cat in the Hat” and 2000’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. Now these movies do have their fans. Some consider “The Cat in the Hat” a genuinely fun bad movie to watch while “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” has become an undeniably beloved holiday classic. But these legacies don’t exactly make them great films or great adaptations of Dr. Seuss’ works. In fact, both movies were so divisive and, in many cases, despised that Dr. Seuss’ widow actually forbade future live-action adaptations of the author’s characters making these the only two such works based on his library of children’s books. With the story of the Grinch getting an animated treatment this weekend I went back, rewatched both live-action movies back to back and decided to pit them against each other to see which is worse….err….I mean which is better. This is “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” Versus “The Cat in the Hat”.
As I said, for this battle I pitted the only two live action adaptations of Dr. Seuss’ books against each other to see which one reigns supreme. Now I understand the critical hatred of these movies, either upon their releases or in hindsight, but I also understand there are people who genuinely like these films, myself included to some extent. So this battle won’t be about destroying these films but rather which movie does best to at least make an effort to do justice to Seuss’ style, writing and characters. With that in mind I picked out five categories that I felt made for the best match ups to decide the winner. For this battle I looked at: the writing and humor, the child costars, the visual style or which film best interprets Seuss’ whimsical aesthetic, the story and how it adds to the source material, and finally I close the battle out with the biggest fight of them all, a face off of Jim Carrey’s Grinch and Mike Myers’ Cat in the Hat characters. So, without further ado let’s get this party started and let the battle begin…
ROUND ONE: WRITING AND HUMOR
Both “The Cat in the Hat” and How the Grinch Stole Christmas” are billed as fantasy comedy movies so the first way to judge which is better is, of course, to look at the humor. The scripts for both movies aren’t exactly cinematic gold, but each have their charm depending on what you’re looking for. Both movies are also led by accomplished comedians who SHOULD have had no problem taking even the lamest jokes and making them work. So which movie is better written and more hilarious? Let’s break it down.
With “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” a lot of the comedy does lean heavily on the charisma of Jim Carrey. His expressive face and mannerism’s helps sell his characters cynical but still charming personality and he has the vocal style down which, in itself, can provide a laugh every time he says something quirky or otherwise off-putting. I’ll touch more on this in the final round but for now it’s worth pointing out that Carrey is able to take a simply okay holiday-themed script and make it his own while the rest of the cast is more passively amusing, using ignorance as the main tool to draw a smile or a laugh from viewers. Overall “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” isn’t an incredibly well written film but there are a lot of one liners, cultural references and even some neat sound effects worked in and timed well enough to bring a laugh every few minutes even if only in the form of a chuckle. Even 18 years later the humor still holds up and that’s probably why people are willing to come back to it every year as a holiday classic.
When looking at “The Cat in the Hat” I can’t say I don’t laugh every time I watch it, but is it’s humor really better than “The Grinch”? Well in some ways yes and others no. Mike Myers is not as funny or expressive as Jim Carrey BUT I will admit he takes a really poorly written script and brings at least some charm out of it in his own special way. Again, I’ll expand on Myer’s take on the character later. The thing with “The Cat in the Hat’s” humor is that it leans MUCH more heavily on adult themed jokes that don’t really fit the tone of the film and cultural references that feel forced and lazy. It’s actually a bit amusing for Mike Myers to literally wink at the audience when he mentions Universal Studios but on subsequent viewings you realize that this is nothing more than a slick attempt to get you to go to the theme park even if it is tongue and cheek and self-aware. The infamous “dirty hoe” scene had me laughing when I saw this as a kid because it was a risqué thing for kids to see. I felt amused because I understood it when I knew I shouldn’t have. Years later it’s not as funny, it’s just random. So “The Cat in the Hat’s” humor really feels more dated, more forced and doesn’t have the same effect years later that “The Grinch’s” humor seems to have maintained. For that the first round goes to the holiday classic. One point to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”.
SCORE: “The Grinch” – 1 “The Cat” – 0
ROUND TWO: SUPPORTING CHILD CHARACTERS
Both movies feature supporting characters in the form of children who actually serve very different roles in their respective films. In “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” Cindy Lou Who serves to try and change the Grinch’s perspective on the holiday while in “The Cat in the Hat” the Cat is actually in the picture to try and teach a lesson to the kids, unnamed in the book but called Sally and Conrad in the movie. The interactions between the child characters and the main character are the most essential parts of the film contributing to the morals, motivations and story arcs of both projects. But which child character is superior, Cindy Lou Who or Sally and Conrad? Let’s take a look.
In “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” we have of course Cindy Lou Who, a character made popular through every rendition of the famous story from the book to television and on the big screen. In every version of the story she’s a young girl who the Grinch meets when he robs her house of their presents, but in the live action movie where she is portrayed by Taylor Momsen she is a much larger part of the narrative. Cindy Lou Who not only plays a part in the expansion of the Grinch’s backstory but she serves as the secondary main character. When the story isn’t following the Grinch it’s following Cindy’s attempt to open the eyes of her fellow Whos about the true meaning of Christmas. Cindy is an outlier in her community, less focused on presents and more focused on the sentiment, and that makes her the perfect person to turn the Grinch’s perspective around. Momsen and Carrey work off each other well in the film with Momsen being everything Carrey is not. Carrey is over the top and flamboyant while Momsen is soft spoken and grounded. Not to mention she’s just downright adorable. Momsen’s Cindy Lou Who always was and still is among the most charming and beloved aspects of this film, with her only real issue being she’s just so damn perfect. Even the fact that she sings a song about not knowing what Christmas is to her seems out of character because of all the people in this movie she seems to be the only one who gets it.
On the other hand we have TWO characters in “The Cat in the Hat” and by design they’re not supposed to be very likable at the start. The book and movie feature a brother and sister duo named Conrad and Sally, played by Spencer Breslin and Dakota Fanning. However they’re more developed in the film. Conrad is a troublemaker while Sally is a pretentious know-it-all which leads the Cat to come into their lives to teach them how to lighten up and have fun without going too far. To be honest I enjoyed the fact that this movie added some depth to the characters who in the book were merely bored. In the film they actually have their own character traits and are opposites of each other which makes the lessons taught in the movie resonate more in terms of the impact on the characters. Whereas Cindy Lou Who is perfect already these two characters are inherently flawed and by the end of the movie learn why having too much fun or no fun at all are both horrible extremes. There needs to be a healthy balance. Now the problem here is that the acting isn’t very memorable. Taylor Momsen is just downright adorable as Cindy Lou Who and there are not a lot of people who will deny that whereas the more I watch “The Cat in the Hat” the less I admire Breslin and Fanning’s performances and I wasn’t really won over by them to begin with.
BUT….but…I’m going to offer a very unpopular opinion on this. When I think of CHARACTER I actually remember the brother and sister more. I feel like the only reason Cindy Lou Who stands out is because we see the movie every year, but if “The Grinch” wasn’t such a classic of the holidays I don’t believe Cindy would be as memorable. As odd as it is to say I think Conrad and Sally experience more growth and attention to detail than Sally does. She’s already grown into her own in the movie and thus there are very little new aspects to explore. Not taking anything away from Momsen or how much people tend to relate to her character I’m giving this round to Sally and Conrad because for me personally I feel like their characters are much more complex by design even if the performances are inferior. Point goes to “The Cat In the Hat”.
SCORE: “The Grinch” – 1 “The Cat” – 1
ROUND 3: PRODUCTION DESIGN & VISUAL AESTHETIC
Being Dr. Seuss movies both live action films were pretty much required to try and replicate the visual style of the author and each did so with elaborate sets that sought to recreate the magical worlds Seuss put to the page. While both use their fair share of computer generated imagery and physical set pieces to get the job done they turned out very different interpretations of the work with one being a bit darker but more realistic and the other being more bright and colorful but a lot more cartoonish. Which movie best captures Seuss’ aesthetic? Let’s take a journey into these individual worlds and find out for ourselves.
In the Ron Howard directed “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” we certainly get a decent interpretation of Seuss’ magical world of Whoville with set pieces and costume designs that look like they jumped right off the page. Every building looks whimsical and fun and objects were created with strange designs and angles to try and fit the odd visual style of the book. Even Mt. Crumpit looks stunning through the use of visual effects. However despite the creativity and inspiration put into the set designs something always seems off when you’re watching this film and that’s the lighting. When you compare this to “The Cat in the Hat”, “The Grinch” is much darker and less inviting. There is color to be sure, but that color feels dampened and nothing really pops. The set design is on point but the cinematography and lighting spoil the beauty of the set and what’s worse many scenes are actually filmed at night making the Christmas lights more eye-popping than the unique set pieces meant to bring Seuss’ world to life.
On the flip side “The Cat in the Hat” is MUCH more colorful and inviting. It actually seems to have just as much effort put into it as “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” even if the sets are smaller. However there’s much more imagination put into the CGI presentation including the design of the trees which actually look extremely close to something from a Dr. Seuss book. For all the flaws “The Cat in the Hat” has the set pieces and backdrops are the most beautiful aspect of the film and there’s a solid reason for that. “The Cat in the Hat” is the lone film directed by Bo Welch, a production designer by trade so it should surprise no one that “The Cat in the Hat” looks the way that it does. This is the kind of presentation Dr. Seuss’ books always had, a quirky look at reality that was colorful and bright and didn’t always make sense. With “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” the set design is good but never seems to serve a purpose other than to add style to the film and the poor lighting fails to bring out the true beauty of the set pieces to the point where the Grinch’s layer actually looks more fun than Whoville itself sometimes. So with that said “The Cat in the Hat” takes the lead with a point for its production design.
SCORE: “The Grinch” – 1 “The Cat” – 2
ROUND 4: THE STORY
So pretty much everyone knows the stories of both the Grinch and the Cat. They’re both classic tales among the most popular, if not THE most popular in Dr. Seuss’ collection. But both books are short stories that couldn’t really be made into films without a little creative license. They’re just not long enough. So the crews behind these films added to the narratives with new elements and aspects to extend them to feature length and thus giving them their own personalities. While some see this as compromising the integrity of Seuss’ original versions of the books the question I pose here is which one actually BUILT on the story the best. Let’s find out.
With “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” we see the same basic story we all know and love unfold. The Grinch is a curmudgeon who lives above Whoville hating the Whos and everything to do with Christmas and, of course, we get to see him try to steal that joy away. But the second act is where the most new material is added. We actually learn WHY the Grinch hates Christmas. Cindy Lou Who is a big part of this as she goes around town interviewing people who knew the Grinch as a child and through flashbacks we’re made privy to why the Grinch seems to despise the most wonderful time of the year. For me this helped “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” stand out beautifully by making its titular character more complex and, dare I say, more human and vulnerable. The movie also makes the creative decision to alter the Whos a bit. In the original book the Whos already have a love for the true meaning of Christmas in their hearts, but in the live action movie they have to learn that with the help of Cindy Lou and the Grinch so by the end of the movie everyone learns a lesson that Christmas is not about the commercialism or the traditions, it’s about being with people you love and care about. For me the add-ons to Dr. Seuss’ story in this holiday classic only enhance the experience and make the Grinch that much more likable despite his personality.
“The Cat in the Hat” also takes its fair share of liberties. I’ve already praised a few in fact especially when it comes to the characters of Conrad and Sally. But…aside from the lessons learned and the character growth of the children there’s really nothing else new this movie has to offer, at least not successfully. “The Cat in the Hat” does make Things One and Two a larger part of the story but this is at the sacrifice of The Fish, a character who serves as a voice of reason and a conscience in the book. The Fish feels like an add-on character in the movie making him pretty insignificant and annoying while Things One and Two might have more personality but they’re not really any more fun than they were on the page. Then you look at the added conflict of the film. The movie loses its way when the kids and the Cat have to hunt down a dog that has run away with a lock to keep a crate of chaos closed sending the characters on a misadventure that doesn’t ever really go anywhere worth going to. It does set up a climax that brings the message of the film back around but while the book kept all the chaos confined to the house taking the story beyond the home doesn’t help enhance the narrative. It just feels like filler. In fact it downright derails the movie whereas “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” stuck much closer to the story Seuss created while enhancing it with new elements that feel warranted and timeless. Point this round goes to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” which evens things up for the final round.
SCORE: “The Grinch” – 2 “The Cat” – 2
FINAL ROUND: THE MAIN CHARACTER
I feel it’s only fitting with a tie score to decide this battle with the most important aspect of these films don’t you? In the end, despite story or visuals or the supporting characters or even the humor, what drew us all to see these movies were the titular characters coming to literal life, the Grinch and the Cat. Portrayed by Jim Carrey and Mike Myers respectively both roles feature the comedic actors in full costumes trying to capture the personalities and quirks of two of Dr. Seuss’ most beloved characters. So to decide the final winner of this battle let’s see which character got the better live action treatment.
For the Grinch Jim Carrey had to endure a two to four hour makeup process but in the end the attention to detail worked. The suit fits the design of the character and the facial prosthetics move with Carrey, allowing him to remain expressive and to look much more natural in the suit. Carrey gives the Grinch a delightful cynicism and attitude. He’s not a true villain in the film, he’s just rude, obnoxious and doesn’t really care to impress anyone and the fact that we get his backstory allows us as the viewers to sympathize with him. Carrey makes the Grinch feel like someone who has been wronged and given a bad hand that he just decided to play because it’s what he had. His transformation feels very natural throughout the movie as the Grinch turns down many opportunities to be a better person and when triggers come into play that cause him to revert back to his nasty self we see that transformation immediately. It’s like watching someone who overcompensates for depression with a know-it-all attitude or machismo. You know he’s not a bad person but it’s hard to like him because he doesn’t even like himself. That’s deep for a character from a children’s book. All-in-all the Grinch looks great, Carrey’s acting brings him to life fantastically and as the leading character in the film driving all the action he definitely makes this Christmas classic worth viewing over and over again.
Then we get to the Cat. Right off the bat it’s worth noting that Mike Myers was not a popular choice for the Cat. Even Dr. Seuss’ widow despised the casting decision. Fans weren’t too impressed either but I’ll give it this, he KIND OF looks like the Cat….maybe….actually no. He only barely looks like the character and instead actually looks kind of off-putting and scary. The suit doesn’t move as fluidly with Myer’s as Carreys does so the final result we get is an oddly stiff Cat that has some animated movement but comes off more like a guy in an uncomfortable Halloween costume than anything else. The makeup and facial prosthetics look similar to the Grinch but limit Myer’s ability to emote, once again making him appear stiff and even uninterested at times. Aside from the suit though let’s look at the performance. Did Mike Myers overcome the backlash against his casting? Not really. Myers is a talented comic and the script doesn’t really do him any favors here, but he brings nothing fun or whimsical to the Cat character. The seemingly wise Cat we see in the book is nowhere to be found in the movie replaced by a basic interpretation of the feline more interested in making odd poop jokes and not taking the world seriously than anything else. It’s clear Myers wanted to put some kind of unique stamp of the Cat but when the character fails to even live up to the lowest of expectations you know you’ve missed the mark. While there are some redeeming aspects of “The Cat in the Hat” the sad truth is one of the worst parts of this movie is the Cat himself who has little character development and the most basic personality traits to the point where he’s overshadowed by the kids he’s supposed to be teaching a lesson to.
So with that the final point is awarded to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” as Jim Carrey created a more fun, memorable and faithful lead character in his grumpy Grinch than Mike Myers did in his bland and forgettable Cat.
SCORE: “The Grinch” – 3 “The Cat” – 2
WINNER: “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”
While people will always have their problems with both live action Dr. Seuss movies, in the end the more popular, more memorable and best one remains the very first one. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” has its flaws and in some ways is, in fact, inferior to “The Cat in the Hat”. The latter is more colorful and looks better while I do appreciate Conrad and Sally’s growth and character arcs more than Cindy Lou Who. However in pretty much every other area “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” proves to be superior. It’s better written and more comical, the added story elements actually build on Dr. Seuss’ original where “The Cat in the Hat” fails to add anything new or memorable and, most of all, Jim Carrey is a better Grinch than Mike Myers is the Cat. I doubt few will debate that “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a better film just because it’s more timeless as a holiday classic, but as this battle shows “The Grinch” isn’t just better by default. Even when you put the two films against each other subjectively it’s my opinion that “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” still stands strong as the better live action adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ legendary work.