Synopsis – A grumpy Grinch plots to ruin Christmas for the village of Whoville.
My Take – The story of how the Grinch stole Christmas is embedded into the American holiday tradition just as much as the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his ‘Christmas Carol‘. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who never heard or read or watched about how the silly grumpy hairy, pot-bellied, pear-shaped, snub-nosed humanoid who just doesn’t understand the magic of Christmas, the way everyone does. First introduced in the 1957 Dr. Seuss children’s book ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas!‘, the story has become a mainstay in popular culture with various film adaptions including the 1966 classic animated television special narrated by Boris Karloff and the 2000 live action film ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas‘ starring Jim Carrey.
Now, just in time for the 2018 holiday season, comes yet another adaption from the creators of the ‘Despicable Me‘ series. When it was announced that Illumination Pictures would be doing this film I was rather skeptical considering I’ve not been a major fan of the products the animation studio usually spurns out, although I was slightly convinced by the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of BBC’s awesome Sherlock and Marvel‘s Dr. Strange, in the titular role. With Minions collaborator Pharell Williams also serving as the narrator, this film sounded like a turning point for the studio.
What I didn’t expect to see was how it was not very redemptive in its own right. While it doesn’t reinvent the story, nor does it top the crudely drawn charms of the original TV version, it just appears quite lukewarm considering how being irreverent and playful fun act as major factors of Illumination‘s other films.
The main problem with this film is that it tells a story that, in its originality as a Dr. Seuss classic, is supposed to have a lot of heart, but it does not, and that’s because it does not have a lot of story in it. Truthfully, this film is not the worst thing to come out of Illumination. It may not be a good film, but at least it doesn’t completely bastardize its message like The Lorax did, and at least it isn’t as excruciatingly for-the-masses as Minions movie was.
The story follows The Grinch (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), an unpleasant version of a human-like creatures called Whos, who lives alone with his dog, Max and his inventions, in a cave high up on Mount Crumpit, on the outskirts of a little town called Whoville. The only time he visits the town and interacts with the other Whos is when he is short on food supplies. The only other thing Grinch hates more than the residents of the town is their celebration of Christmas and just about everything they do during the holiday season.
However when Grinch gets the news from Bricklebaum (voiced by Kenan Thompson), a jolly citizen of Whoville, that the town’s elderly Mayor McGerkle (voiced by Angela Lansbury) has announced to celebrate Christmas three times bigger this year, he is just not ready to tolerate this kind of happiness, not even in the slightest. In order to maintain the peace and quiet he loves so much, he decides to be pretend as Santa Claus and steal everyone’s Christmas trees and gifts, hereby breaking their spirit.
Meanwhile in the town, Cindy-Lou Who (voiced by Cameron Seely), a young resident, has something else in mind. Concerned that her single mother, Donna Lou (voiced by Rashida Jones) is overworking herself, Cindy-Lou decides to catch Santa and make him do something nice for her.
You know this story already and the makers do very little to distinguish itself from the classic animated tale. It’s merely updated for a modern audience, meaning that its contents are simply watered down with the studio hoping that obnoxious popcorn munchers get a few hearty chuckles. If I’m being honest, the contents of the film quickly started to fade from my memory as soon as I left the theater. Funny enough, the film is one of the toughest films of 2018 to discuss in a review, not some other film that requires much intellectual thought. Dr. Seuss’ holiday fable is so pure and simple that no one could ruin it completely, and there’s no denying its latest adaptation is cute and inclusive in all the right places, but as directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney attempt to moderate between the two prior cinematic versions of the Seuss tale and they come up lacking every step of the way.
They want the ease and simplicity of the former, but stuff it so full of bullshit that the story, even as sparse as it already is, feels about 75 minutes too long, but they don’t want to be too Seussian, which is why they replace all of the artist’s designs with their own in-house facsimiles. The classic is too pure and simple to support an entire feature — there’s a reason why the cherished 1966 television special is only 26 minutes long — and this updated version has no clue how to fill the extra time. Sure, there are glimmers of new story threads here, as it hints at a bit of a tortured past for the Grinch that explains his loathsome ways with another diving into Cindy-Lou Who’s desire to help her mother.
In theory both of these ideas could make for charming holiday fun. The keywords in that sentence are “in theory,” as the film doesn’t offer enough time to either piece for them to carry much emotional weight. The 2000 version spent a good deal of time diving into the Grinch’s backstory, making him a victim of childhood bullying; that’s gone here. Instead we get an extended quest in search of a reindeer that includes that insufferable goat yell that was all the rage in meme culture approximately six years ago. In fact, Cumberbatch’s Grinch is rather more of a flawed cardboard cutout of a character we are already familiar with.
There is no in-depth background to the characters and though we are given a background of the Grinch, it is fast-forwarded to get to the next scene, which fast-forwards to get to the next scene. When his spirit is revived at the end, when his heart regrows, the spiritual jolt that that scene is supposed to have just falls flat. The Whos down in Whoville, at the very least, are also portrayed as a bunch of materialistic people. Here, they’re so intensely good, so intrinsically sweet and kind, that there’s no growth to be had, and if anything, it garners even more sympathy for the Grinch and his laments as it progresses. The most annoying of the Whos is little Cindy Lou Who, our co-protagonist, who wants to meet Santa in order to ask him to help her mom, a night shift-working nurse with three extra mouths to feed, relax. She is the embodiment of wholesomeness and pluck, and the film utterly grinds to a half whenever she’s the focus of attention.
This type of arc was more palatable in the director Howard‘s film, which at least had her struggle for her beliefs against a frustrated and indifferent community, but it’s just so plainly presented by directors Mosier and Cheney, without a shred of wit or fun that it’s hard to watch. The only exception here is the dynamic between Grinch and Max. Max the dog has often been silent in most adaptations, giving him more to do this time is actually a benefit.
Also coming from Illumination Entertainment, the animation is pretty good here, as the film brightly lit and visually appealing. The animated designs are actually also well done. They definitely feel like they have come out of the same universe as The Lorax and Horton Hears A Who. The new characters that have been created are not too bad, including Fred the reindeer who unfortunately had all of his best moments ruined by the trailers.
Nevertheless, Benedict Cumberbatch is having fun talking in a broad American accent. Cumberbatch is a pretty quality choice to play the sniveling, sarcastic ne’er-do-well and on his part he does well. Pharrell Williams narrates the story, but doesn’t have much flavor in his phrasing; somewhere, there’s a voice actor cursing the day celebrities took over the voice over field. In supporting roles, Rashida Jones, Cameron Seely and Kenan Thompson also play their parts fairly. On the whole, ‘The Grinch’ is a disappointing adaption, which despite the scope of imagination ends up being underwhelming and uninspired.
Rated – PG
Run Time – 86 minutes