The story of the Grinch is a pretty simple one. In Dr. Seuss’ iconic 1957 children’s picture book How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the title character is a big fuzzy grump who hates Christmas, and especially hates the chipper Whos in Whoville living below his mountain home. He schemes to literally steal the holiday, scooping up all the toys and decorations in Whoville, intent on ruining the annual event. But even without presents or lights or garland, the Whos still have the Christmas spirit. They sing a joyful song, the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes, he returns everything he stole and is welcomed as the guest of honor at the Whos’ Christmas dinner. The end.
The story was elegantly adapted by Chuck Jones into a 26-minute TV special in 1966, with Boris Karloff providing the narration and voicing the Grinch himself. Since no recognizable intellectual property can go unexploited in Hollywood, though, the short, straightforward story has twice been expanded to feature length, first in the loud, manic live-action 2000 version starring Jim Carrey and directed by Ron Howard, and now in a computer-animated film from Illumination, the studio behind the Despicable Me movies and other generic (but lucrative) animated fare.
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Illumination’s innocuous style makes its version (officially titled Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch) easily digestible, but also entirely forgettable. It’s not nearly as off-putting as the live-action film’s grotesque showcase for a hyperactive Carrey, but it also lacks a distinctive identity that gives it a reason for existing. Other than the jarring sight of one of the Whos using a smartphone, and a half-formed subplot about young Cindy Lou Who’s overworked single mom, there isn’t anything particularly modern or contemporary about this version. It doesn’t alter the underlying story so much as augment it, adding extra clutter to the basic plot elements until it can stretch itself to the requisite 90 minutes (or 85 or so, minus credits).
The casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice of the Grinch seems like an inspired choice at first, but for some reason, directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney have decided to have him speak in a flat American accent instead of his natural, mellifluous voice, and the result is a Grinch who sounds mildly congested rather than sinister or tortured or devious. He’s actually quite nice to his long-suffering dog Max, and even makes friends with an overweight reindeer named Fred, who’s conscripted as part of the Grinch’s plan to disguise himself as Santa Claus in order to steal Christmas.
And he now has a new, tragic back story, as the script by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow explains the Grinch’s hatred of Christmas by depicting him as a young, unloved orphan who never got to celebrate the holiday. From the start, the Grinch is more cuddly than menacing, and even though this has always been a children’s story, there needs to be at least a little meanness to the nasty green guy so that his eventual conversion makes an impact. Here, he’s mostly subject to silly slapstick, especially during the drawn-out mid-film stretch as he makes elaborate plans for his Christmas heist.
The goofy pratfalls and the puppy-dog eyes from Max (and Fred the reindeer) will probably go over well with kids, and like most of Illumination’s movies, The Grinch aims for nothing more than providing mild amusement for children. The story of the Grinch doesn’t quite carry the same urgent social message as Seuss’ environmental fable The Lorax, which Illumination previously adapted to underwhelming results in 2012, but it does still have something to say about the commercialization of the holidays, which gets drowned out by all the movie’s extra noise.
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That noise includes some bright and visually appealing design for the Christmas-tastic Whoville, and a much less appealing hip-hop version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” by Tyler, the Creator. The sleepy narration by Pharrell Williams can’t possibly compare to Karloff’s (or even Anthony Hopkins’ in the 2000 film). The aforementioned subplot about Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) wishing Santa would bring help for her stressed-out mom (Rashida Jones) doesn’t go anywhere, and neither does the Grinch’s connection to the orphanage from his youth, which is never mentioned outside a single flashback. The movie’s most welcome addition is an absurdly upbeat, bearded Who voiced by Kenan Thompson, who’s convinced that the Grinch is his best friend despite ample evidence otherwise.
Even a handful of funny line deliveries from Thompson can’t really justify all the extra padding, though. Seuss only needed only a slim volume of verse and line drawings to create one of the most indelible characters in all of children’s literature and to tell an emotionally powerful story about Christmas. This movie takes 90 minutes, dozens of technicians and tens of millions of dollars to render that same character and that same story less delightful, less transporting and less memorable.