The Grinch (2018)
It’s never too early to be annoyed by Christmas.
The ninth fully animated 3D feature from Illumination Entertainment/ Universal Pictures, and their third Dr. Seuss adaptation — following 2008’s excellent Horton Hears a Who! and 2012’s even better The Lorax — The Grinch kind of left me cold. Why? Well, I’ve always considered Ron Howard’s live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) to be the definitive silver screen version of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s children’s holiday classic with Jim Carrey’s portrayal of the green, revenge-seeking grump so ludicrous and on the nose that I couldn’t imagine any other actor stepping into the character’s skin. So, with such a praiseworthy adaptation already in circulation, I kept asking myself if we really needed this newly animated retelling. The simple answer is no.
Based on Dr. Seuss’ 69-page book, The Grinch tells the story of a cranky, cave-dwelling green guy (awkwardly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) who, along with his loyal canine companion Max, lives a life of solidarity up on the tip of Mt. Crumpet, North of Whoville, only venturing down to the town below when running out of provisions. On this particular December, however, the reclusive holiday-hating Grinch decides to swipe Christmas from the happy-go-lucky human-like denizens of Whoville (known as the Whos), who, each and every year, try to make the yuletide festivities brighter, brasher and noisier. And we all know how the story goes, the Mean One, who’s actually not so mean here (nor is he as feared or fearful), having a drastic change of heart after a brief run-in with a generous, spirited young girl named Cindy-Lou Who (Cameron Seely), who shows our small-hearted anti-hero that he, too, can have a big heart.
Written by Michael LeSieur, who previously penned the not-so-funny Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016), and Tommy Swerdlow, whose most ‘renowned’ screenwriting credit is 1993’s Cool Runnings, The Grinch brings nothing new, narratively or thematically, to this timeless storybook tale, LeSieur and Swerdlow (essentially) stretching Seuss’ one-act story into a three-act structure, and it shows — it’s vastly predictable, with filmmakers failing to fill in the gaps with anything hearty or substantial. You see, Howard’s picture padded its runtime by exploring the delightfully flawed, overly cantankerous meanie in much more depth, giving him a complete redemption arc, whereas this reworking is wholly focused on gags and slapstick with barely a hint of profundity or substance, bar some kid-friendly power of optimism stuff — clearly, it’s catering to young children rather than adults or families.
Although we are given reasons behind the misanthropic Mr. Grinch’s merrytime loathing — ya know, his head not being screwed on just right, or his shoes being too tight, via voice-over by Pharrell Williams (who’s both narrator and musical supervisor here) — any rock-solid validation is flimsy at best, and hardly justifies the sheer abhorrence the embittered Ebenezer has for the season. Sure, he was unloved as a child, growing up in an orphanage and always celebrating Christmas alone, but seeing that he does appear to have ‘friends’ — in the form or a jolly bearded Who named Mr. Bricklebaum (sprightly voiced by Kenan Thompson) — his bitterness and actions feel clunky and unwarrented. On the flipside, the Brian Grazer-produced Grinch gives motive and drive behind the furry hobgoblin’s disdain towards Christmas, the grouch, I mean Grinch berating the Whos for their greed and selfish ways while condemning Christmas for its narcissistic nature, claiming that it’s a self-serving holiday fuelled by gratuitous gift-giving. (Given the juggernaut that is consumerism today, these themes still ring very true.)
With the headier content dropped, this Grinch-y reimagining seems custom made for young’uns, playing out like a sugary stocking stuffer — it’s fun and flavorsome while it lasts, but really quite forgetful once the time’s passed. And this extends into the design of the characters and their function also. The Grinch (himself) is softer, both in attitude and physicality (where’s his bulging potbelly gone?), resembling a fluffy green man-dog as opposed to a frightful, wrinkled, pear-shaped imp; just compare their child versions — sad and cute in this new incarnation versus slightly sadistic in the 2000 film. Max the dog is far more faithful and loving this time around, too, coming across like an extension of the Grinch — think a tangible conscience. So, he’s no longer looking scared or reluctant.
Helmed by Secret Life of Pets (2016) co-director Yarrow Cheney, and newcomer Scott Mosier, The Grinch is, to say the least, a visual feast, boasting a bounty of whimsical Seussian imagery in each and every frame. As one would expect, the digital landscapes are seamlessly textured while the poppy Christmastime colors heighten the holiday cheer, Whoville a snow-engulfed, mountainous gingerbread-esque metropolis decked out with Christmassy fandangle.
And, look, the flick does have its fair share of bouncy bits, along with a wealth of high-spirited hijinks, which are sure to get the kiddies cackling — watching the grumbling green dude get stalked by an aggressive carol-singing acapella troupe is pretty darn gratifying. The pinnacle, however, is a montage that sees a Santa Clause-disguised Grinch (who wields some wicked army-knife candy canes) nab Christmas from under the Whos’ noses, this sequence elevated by the always-dependable Danny Elfman, whose fanciful and evocative score echoes that of the similarly-themed The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), also scored by Elfman, another film whose plot focuses on a mischief-maker wanting to nick Christmas.
Moreover, Elfman has also written his own rendition of ‘You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch’ (which features in the trailer) and an original track for this remake titled ‘I Am The Grinch’ with Tyler, the Creator — still, none of these linger more than Faith Hill’s mournful yet optimistic ‘Where Are You Christmas’ from the soundtrack of the 2000 film (which, to this very day, is still one my favorite ‘Christmas Carols’). Considering the straight aim is at children, though, it’s surprising to note just how little chimes and rhymes are actually used throughout the proceedings.
Regarding voice work, Benedict Cumberbatch, best known for his portrayal of Marvel’s Doctor Strange, makes a strange Mr. Grinch (ironic, huh?), his vocals coming off as a little too gentle and jarring for the tetchy titular troublemaker. The younger stars all fit the bill nicely, though, with Cameron Seely’s Cindy-Lou, and her elementary school pals Groopert (Tristan O’Hare), Axl (Ramone Hamilton), Izzy (Scarlett Estevez), and Ozzy (Sam Lavagnino), really stealing the show, the cluster of kids scheming to catch Santa (so that Cindy-Lou can hand him her ‘Christmas Wish’ letter in person) with hilarious results. Oh, Angela Lansbury, Beauty and the Beast (1991), has a couple of lines in this one as well, playing the Whoville mayor McGerkle.
As a sheer entertainer, The Grinch is a no-brainer. It’s got Christmas iconography aplenty, some decent humor, bright and bubbly artwork, and mushy messages for younglings, the film commenting on the infectious nature that joy and kindness can bring, especially around Christmas. Still, Howard’s Grinch does everything that this film does, only better, and it’s a lot more endearing for it. Yes, The Grinch is gorgeously decorated, but as a ho-ho-holiday treat, it kinda lacks meat, and is missing that magic of Christmas. Honestly, I don’t love the Minions, but their prison break short, titled Yellow is the New Black, which precedes the film, is, well, almost as enjoyable.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by S-Littner