The Pitch: It’s The Grinch, what more do you need to know?
You’re a Mean One: Okay, more specifically, this latest adaption of the iconic Dr. Seuss How the Grinch Stole Christmas! story keeps the same basic plot beats but reconfigures some of the details. The Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is less of a monstrous outsider and more of a self-appointed loner. To avoid ever again feeling the pain of his solitary childhood as a forgotten orphan, the Grinch has banished himself to a Rube Goldbergian home on Mount Crumpit with only his loyal dog Max for company. (Disney princesses wish they had animal sidekicks this cute.)
It’s clearly a self-appointed exile, however. Whenever the Grinch does venture down into Whoville, the rest of the Whos are either mildly indifferent towards him or downright excited to see him. A jolly Kenan Thompson-voiced Who even considers the Grinch his best friend. Elsewhere, Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) is re-imagined as a plucky grade-schooler whose Christmas wish is for Santa to lighten the load of her hardworking single mom Donna Lou Who (Rashida Jones).
Mr. Grinch: The only decision more baffling than hiring Benedict Cumberbatch to narrate a penguin documentary when he can’t even say the word properly is hiring him to voice the Grinch and then having him use a nasally American accent, rather than his famed British baritone. To be fair, Cumberbatch’s mild-mannered tone fits this softer version of the character, and he does a lovely job selling the Grinch’s post-transformation emotional vulnerability, which gets more of an extended focus here than it usually does. Still, it leaves you wondering if the original plan was to have Cumberbatch use his iconically grouchy Sherlock voice for the role, only for something to change mid-production. (The bigger casting misstep turns out to be Pharrell Williams as the film’s narrator, who unfortunately can’t channel his charming celebrity persona into his lackluster voiceover work.)
The Verdict: While it doesn’t hold a candle to the original 1966 Chuck Jones TV special, The Grinch is in every way superior to the truly ghastly Jim Carrey version from 2000. It’s clear that directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney had both previous adaptations in mind while crafting their own. As in the 2000 version, we get a tragic backstory for the Grinch and a lightly modernized version of Whoville. Thankfully, however, the film emphasizes the warmth and whimsy of the original cartoon over the grotesque, mean-spirited vibe that defined the Carrey version. There’s not a single lusty, oversexualized Who to be found, which doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that should need to be clarified and yet here we are. Still, the simple story (the original cartoon unfolded in a fleet 26 minutes) needs to be expanded somehow, and screenwriters Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow mostly do so with the Looney Tunes-esque action sequences that dominate the film’s mid-section and give The Grinch an episodic, Saturday morning cartoon vibe. Now it’s time for the Grinch and Max to find a reindeer! Now it’s time for the Grinch and Max to steal a Santa costume! Now the Grinch is playing “All By Myself” on a pipe organ!
As the studio behind the Despicable Me and Minions franchises (plus the underrated Sing), Illumination has a bit of a reputation for churning out lowest common denominator fare, aimed at parents who are happy for any cinematic distraction for their kids. There’s some of that in The Grinch’s shallow storytelling (it introduces a compelling dynamic between Cindy and her mom and then does nothing with it, nor does it thematically tie their story with the Grinch’s). Yet there’s at least some real heart and soul in The Grinch’s animation. The film has a lot of fun playing around with size and scale, particularly as it zooms from the streets of Whoville up to the top of Mount Crumpit. Mosier and Cheney give wonderful palpability to the textures of their world, from the Grinch’s pea-green fur to the snow that sticks to it whenever he’s outside. The Christmas lights of Whoville have a real sparkle to them, and animated cookies have never looked so delicious.
The whimsical designs of both Whoville and the Grinch’s various Christmas-stealing contraptions help jazz up the film during its slowest passages. As with many Illumination films, the quantity-over-quality nature of the gags sort of becomes its own kind of pleasure. Thompson steals the movie on pure enthusiasm alone, despite never really being given any actual jokes to deliver. And, really, if you can’t laugh at the image of a bulky reindeer trying to hide behind a skinny tree during the holiday season, when can you? While The Grinch never rises to the level of a modern Christmas classic, it’s an enjoyable enough holiday diversion with a core message that’s as lovely today as it was when Dr. Seuss first wrote it.
Where’s It Playing?: The Grinch steals Christmas early this year as the film hits theaters on November 9th.