Although it eventually outpaced Cast Away and Mission: Impossible II to emerge as the top moneymaker of 2000 (totalling $260 million in ticket sales), Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (*** out of four) earned a chilly reception from a hefty number of critics, many of whom vilified it for promoting the same crass sense of commercialism that the good doctor warned against in his original story about a creature with a heart "two sizes too small." Admittedly, the marketing tie-in blitz was a bit much, but ultimately, that had nothing to do with the quality of the movie, which looked positively inspired when compared to the period's other family film, the execrable 102 Dalmatians. Indeed, the first quarter-hour is the riskiest stretch: As we witness all these unusual sights and sounds, acutely aware of how director Ron Howard is trying to establish a proper tone, it's easy to set up a negative barrier against the film's offbeat approach. But as the picture progresses, it settles into its own deliciously eccentric groove, and if you can get into its wigged-out rhythms, it offers numerous pleasures, including an eye-popping production design by Michael Corenblith and Rick Baker's Oscar-winning makeup effects. Still, what clearly pushes Grinch over the hump is Jim Carrey: What he does with this potentially limiting role is astonishing, and with the exception of his grossly overlooked turn in Man On the Moon, it represents the best film acting he's done to date. DVD features include deleted scenes, outtakes, featurettes on the film's makeup and effects, and a game section for little kids.
It wouldn't be completely accurate to call last summer's Planet of the Apes (***) a guilty pleasure, since its positive reviews largely kept pace with the negative ones. But considering this was the movie that arguably emerged as the period's "most-want-to-see" title -- as well as the picture that many thought would save a dismal summer season -- my appreciation for this ambitious remake places me on the upper branch of critical consensus. Unlike the 1968 original, which continues to resonate for a number of reasons, Tim Burton's version is purely a popcorn picture. On that level, it's a success: It's lively, involving, visually stimulating, even clever. On a larger scale, though, it's impossible to shake the feeling that Burton blew the chance to create something truly endearing and enduring. In fact, Burton himself may be this movie's weakest link: For the first time in his career, he's the invisible man, the gun-for-hire, the director who knows his craft but puts little of himself into the project at hand. And while the '68 take allowed its characters plenty of opportunities to chew the philosophical fat, this version removes the allusions to racism and nuclear power and replaces them with a simple need for speed: Astronaut (Mark Wahlberg) gets captured by apes, astronaut escapes from apes, apes give chase, that's it. Yet what remains is good stuff. Burton's team of technical pros have collaborated to bring us an entire ape culture that feels authentic and lived-in, while the action scenes are breathlessly exciting. And although the actors playing the humans leave little impression, the ones buried under Rick Baker's spectacular latex designs (most notably Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth) imbue the film with the proper degrees of outrage and empathy. DVD features in this handsome two-disc set include audio commentaries by Burton and composer Danny Elfman, six documentaries, and extended scenes.
Like Planet of the Apes, 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture (***) was actually considered more of a disappointment than an out-and-out turkey: While a hit at the box office, the film has long been regarded as the most boring picture in the entire series. Yet what many people forget is that, perhaps more than any other movie genre, the science fiction film is about ideas as much as about action, which is why I find this talky drama to be on a level with the series' best efforts. The dynamic relationship between Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) picks up right where the original series left off, while the storyline incorporates two durable themes from sci-fi lore: man vs. machine, and the neverending search for one's creator. With director Robert Wise actively involved, Paramount has issued an impressive two-disc DVD for this much-requested title. I could take or leave the additional special effects created for this edition and incorporated straight into the movie -- frankly, I was satisfied with the effects first shown back in '79 -- but the supplemental documentaries are entertaining, especially the one that details how the studio was prepping a new Star Trek series in the 70s before finally deciding on a feature film instead. Interestingly, Nimoy was the only original cast member who declined to take part in the series, though early test footage on this DVD reveals that Persis Khambatta's movie character (the bald Ilia) would have been included in the TV line-up.