Like gargantuan, top-heavy balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, this season's "family-oriented" Hollywood holiday films take a couple of lovely children's classics and inflate them out of all scale and proportion. During the long weekend some damn relative is bound to suggest a theater visit en famille, so you should pick a title that won't drive you crazy.
Ron Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas (rated PG) expands the animated television special by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) and Chuck Jones to 102 sense-numbing minutes. Howard and his screenwriters reduce Max the dog's appealing role and horrendously enlarge that of the irksome Cindy Lou Who. (As played by the glossy 5-year-old Taylor Momsen, Cindy Lou is uneasy over the holiday's rampant commercialization, targeting her for the Grinch's disdain.) Howard's Whoville is the most cluttered and noisome burg since Sweethaven in Altman's Popeye. And do we really care about the Grinch's troubled childhood? Jim Carrey is often funny ("I'm speaking in rhyme!" he exclaims in disgust after a bout of Seussian poesy), but his is a scattered, unrestrained performance. (Holding a piece of mistletoe over his ass and telling the assembled Whovians to "Pucker up and kiss it!" is just plain jarring.)
Not to be outdone, Disney makes a second go of trashing the gentle pleasures of its 1956 animated feature, 101 Dalmatians. For the 1996 remake, writer/producer John Hughes bastardized the animated original into Home Alone with puppies (a mild improvement over Macaulay Culkin). This time, 102 Dalmatians director Kevin Lima (Disney's Tarzan) improves only marginally on Hughes, which isn't enough. The Disney filmmakers just don't understand the difference between animated G-rated violence and live action: Their slavish, real-world reproduction of cartoon action grates.
Luckily, there's respite from these overdesigned marketing projects. The Klasky Csupo animation studio offers Rugrats in Paris: The Movie (also G), the second feature based on its hit TV series. Like the first film, this one is smart and witty without being patronizing. Spoofing our consumerist culture with references to movies ("You want the button?" the bratty Angelica screams. "You can't handle the button!") and overblown merchandising (the first image of Paris is of "EuroReptarland," a humongous Japanese-owned amusement park), the folks at Klasky Csupo understand childhood and storytelling in a way that Disney rarely does. The Rugrats inhabit a ridiculous, often perilous world, yet still manage to thrive. For this, let us give thanks.