While it hardly conjures magic, Ron Howard's Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas delivers one holiday gift, and that is Jim Carney. As the eponymous curmudgeon, Carrey throws his entire furry green body and inimitable grin into this role, pushing Dr. Seuss' cartoon creation to its dramatic limit. His Grinch's dark side is pitch-black, but that only enhances his character's ultimate embrace of Whomanity. More important, it's funny. While Carrey and the audience would be better served by a less cluttered, hyperkinetic production, the star's animated intensity keeps The Grinch moving.

Screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) expand Dr. Seuss' slender tale about an embittered, cave-dwelling Grinch determined to rob Whoville of Christmas by dressing up as Santa Claus and stealing everyone's presents. Whereas Dr. Seuss offers a biological explanation of the Grinch's bad attitude (tight shoes and a 'heart that was two sizes too small'), the movie adds a psychological one: It's not easy being green.

In a playful flashback, baby Whos tucked in baskets are shown flying through the night sky toward their would-be parents. The newbom Grinch, cute though he may be, stands out with his hairy green face and yellow eyes, but he is reared as a regular Who-child. In school, however, he suffers the torments of being different ('You don't have a chance with her,' a classmate taunts, 'when you're eight years old and you have a beard!'), and after a humiliating Christmas party, the young Grinch bolts Whoville for the isolation of Mount Crumpit.

While adding this rather pat traumatic history to a cartoon character weighs the story down a bit, it also adds a degree of pathos. And considering the real audience for this movie, children, the message of tolerance never gets old. Adults and teenagers, on the other hand, will find the sappy music (by James Horner) and forced sentiment hard to stomach. Adorable Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen), who briefly appears in the book, is central here as the idealistic child who believes that the Grinch has soul. More radical still, she deplores the crass commercialism of Christmas! She convinces her townspeople to appoint the Grinch Honorary Cheermeister of the Whobilation, but as the Grinch notes later, Cindy Lou is a nice kid but a bad judge of character.

Carrey's Grinch has fun in his junk-filled cave, rationalizing to his dog Max why his busy schedule won't permit him to accept the appointment. ('Let's see, from noon to one, wallow in self-pity,' etc.) And who can't relate to his announcing huffily, 'If I don't find something nice to wear, I'm not going!' One never quite knows who this Grinch is and how he's going to act, so in spite of the predictably happy ending, the movie maintains an element of suspense.

The priceless Christine Baranski (Bowfinger, Bulworth) shares Carrey's comic edge in her smaller role as Martha May Whovier, a sultry, rich Whovillian who maintains a childhood crush on the Grinch ('The muscles!'). Only she and Cindy Lou are spared the bizarre facial makeovers that turn the other residents of Whoville into snouty, pot-bellied humanoids. Though as distant from Dr. Seuss as it could be, Baranski's sexual rapture in the Grinch's presence adds a humorous weirdness to the movie.

Some of the good doctor's original verse is narrated throughout The Grinch by Anthony Hopkins. But aside from these lines and an inspired but brief Seuss-like cartoon depicting the Grinch's zigzagging route up Mount Crumpit, the simple spirit of the original is sadly lacking. This Grinch is a product of today's Hollywood, and therefore stuffed to bursting with special effects, over-the-top sets and frenetic editing. On the other hand, today's young audience is accustomed to technical wizardry and a quick pace. For the purists, there's the 1966 animated short narrated by Boris Karloff. But for Jim Carrey fans and most kids, this Grinch will do.

--Wendy Weinstein