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Right Guy for the Gig?

Ron Howard is one of Hollywood's foremost nice guys, right? Can he possibly do justice to the darker elements of 'Grinch'? Universal is betting large that he can.

November 16, 2000|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a marriage only the World Wrestling Federation or the producers of "Survivor" might conjure up.

In front of the camera is the Grinch, that bad-tempered, intolerant, loathsome, foul-smelling, cave-dwelling, dog-abusing, Christmas-hating green curmudgeon with an attitude worse than "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's, and the wrestler is so mean he downs beers after mashing opponents into the canvas.

Behind the camera giving the Grinch direction is Ron Howard, Hollywood's perennial Good Guy, who as a kid sang "Gary, Indiana" in "The Music Man" and charmed the socks off American television viewers as mop-haired Opie Taylor on "The Andy Griffith Show" and later as straight-arrow high schooler Richie Cunningham on "Happy Days."

So, you begin to wonder, what were they thinking when they had Opie-Richie direct the Grinch in Universal Pictures' new film, "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas"?

Does Opie-Richie really understand what it's like to be a Grinch? Can he get under the skin of Dr. Seuss' cranky emerald-colored creature who takes pleasure in doling out so much misery on the pear-shaped denizens of Whoville? Can Opie-Richie really understand the angst a Grinch must feel when he hears caroling wafting up from the townsfolk or the wellspring of rage that erupts periodically from inside the Grinch's cavern on Mt. Crumpit when he sees the residents happily wrapping Christmas gifts? And if you're going to direct a movie about a Grinch, shouldn't you first get inside his shoes and walk around in them a little bit?

In short, shouldn't Oliver Stone be directing "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas"?

"He's not just a mean one," Howard says of the Grinch, "he's a messed up one."

Sitting in his spacious seventh-floor office at Imagine Entertainment above Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, Howard exudes the same boyish qualities that endeared him to millions of TV viewers over the years, but he grows defensive when asked whether "Grinch" might be a tad dark for very young children or whether some of actor Jim Carrey's sophisticated zingers might soar over the heads of too many youngsters. When asked if the film might be geared more toward kids 12 or 13 years old, Howard immediately tries to shoot down that theory.

"I'd go much younger than that," he says, twisting in his chair. "It's [rated] PG. I really beg to differ. We haven't had any kid be disturbed by it at all. Some things may go over their heads, but I think 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds, they'll be delighted by it. I know that because I've shown it to them.

"If you look at [programming on children's cable channel] Nickelodeon, that's pretty sophisticated stuff that has a lot of edge, and that's not 12- or 13-year-olds," he adds. "That's kids. There's a lot of bite there. We wanted to make [our film] visual, funny, physical but with enough bite and enough wit and enough great jokes that older audiences could get it too. I really hope it's multi-generational, and it has been from our screenings."

$120 Million Invested in 'Grinch'

Howard was so concerned by the questioning that later a studio publicist called the reporter to stress that preview screenings have been popular with smaller children.

One can understand Howard's nervousness. After all, Universal has invested $120 million in "Grinch," which opens Friday, and, even with a talent like Carrey, nothing is a given in Hollywood these days.

Howard has been through this kind of situation before with less-than-stirring results.

In 1988, he directed "Willow," a fantasy-adventure film based on a story by George Lucas of "Star Wars" fame. MGM released the movie at the start of the big summer season and, like "Grinch," the movie was accompanied by huge publicity and merchandising. But the film didn't live up to the hype, grossing only $57.3 million in North America.

Universal Studios Chairman Stacey Snider said Howard's track record as a director proves that he knows how to deliver quality mainstream pictures.

"When you look at the accomplishments he's had--'Apollo 13,' this film, 'Parenthood'--the artistic quality is undeniable," Snider said. "He tends toward material that everybody else likes, too."

The box office bears her out.

Howard's last dozen pictures have grossed a total of $866 million in North America alone. Three of those movies have topped the $100-million mark--"Apollo 13" ($172 million), "Ransom" ($136 million) and "Parenthood" ($100 million). Many believe "Grinch" will soon join them.

But "Ransom" was four years ago, and "Apollo 13," which received an Academy Award nomination for best picture, was five. Howard's last film, "Ed TV," took a box office drubbing in 1999, grossing domestically only $22.4 million.

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