A fitting and charming animated retelling of one of author Theodor Geisel’s most beloved children’s books, Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch won’t unseat the 1966 television special as the best take on the material, but it will sure wash out the aftertaste of the Ron Howard/Jim Carrey live action version that rubbed many the wrong way. Packed with visual delights, enough silliness and slapstick to keep the little ones happy, and just enough interesting notions to justify its somewhat modernized take on the material, Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch might not be an all time holiday classic, but it’s a fine way to dip one’s toe into the holiday spirit pool.
On a basic level, the story is the same as it ever was, only this time it’s narrated by Pharrell Williams. At a secluded and inhospitable mountainside estate overlooking the Christmas loving citizens of Whoville lives The Grinch, voiced this time by Benedict Cumberbatch, who gets to put his underrated use of wit and sarcasm to good use here. The Grinch sees all the Whos in Whoville as selfish, oblivious, cloyingly cheerful brats who care far too much for material creature comforts. Pushed too far in the days leading up to Christmas by the mayor (Angela Lansbury) ordering that the holiday be three times bigger this year, The Grinch and his trusty canine pal, Max, concoct a plan to rob the town’s residents of all their presents and holiday cheer.
This latest incarnation of Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch has been produced by Illumination, the studio responsible for the Despicable Me franchise, The Secret Life of Pets, and Sing and directed by Yarrow Cheney (who worked on The Lorax as an animator) and Scott Mosier (who’s probably better known as the producer of much of Kevin Smith’s early work). Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch fits nicely into the company’s playful, kid friendly blockbuster wheelhouse, giving the European studio their most stunning looking effort to date. The sheer amount of fine details in every scene is jaw dropping to behold, and the fact that the camera is constantly moving and panning throughout the streets of Whoville, The Grinch’s cavernous home, and the woods and mountains surrounding them all makes this effort feel immersive. For quite some time now, computer animated films have been able to make it appear like they’ve been filmed on elaborate sets or redecorated locations, but the candy coloured aesthetic of Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch might be one of the best examples of this. There aren’t too many blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sight gags (but there are a few fleeting references and nods to past versions, other Seuss works, and Illumination films), but the details of every house in Whoville are enthralling. It’s a gorgeous film to look at, and almost worth the ticket price alone to marvel at the unfathomable amount of work, time, and technology that had went into making it.
The same can’t be said for the overall story, credited to writers Tommy Swerdlow (Cool Runnings, Little Giants) and Michael LeSieur (You, Me, and Dupree, Keeping Up with the Joneses), which is servicable, but straining to find ways of padding such a short book into a feature length film. That’s a problem most adaptations of children’s books face because there’s only so much material to work with, and quite often the new ideas being added don’t line up well with the intentions of the original creator. While Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch hits almost all the same beats as the book did, the quality of the material being added varies from slightly amusing to boring, but never all that inspired.
To illustrate The Grinch’s hatred for the holiday season early on, the mean green mother from that other place goes into Whoville with Max to buy some groceries and is assaulted with holiday cheer from all directions from the likes of stalking carolers and Bricklebaum, the happiest Who in town (voiced by a scene stealing Kenan Thompson). That’s a great way to establish the character and add some running time, but it goes on for far too long. The same goes for a sequence where The Grinch and Max are so bored that they try to find ways to amuse themselves, which is a cheap way to add padding. Somewhere in the middle of all this is a lengthy side quest for The Grinch to find reindeer to make his devious Santa impersonation complete, involving an eager, shouting goat and a large, lumbering sweetheart named Fred. Again, it looks spectacular, but none of this is particularly funny, and one wishes that Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch would get back to the story at hand. No one ever cared about how The Grinch stole Christmas, and they probably still won’t after this. They cared that he was a mean old bag of bones wrapped in sickly green fur who’ll eventually warm to the holiday spirit by the end. The visual details are impressive. The narrative details are unnecessary.
The better and more timely narrative addition to Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch comes in the form of elevating the character of precocious young Who Cindy-Lou (Cameron Seely, who almost has a better way with a well timed punchline than Cumberbatch). The youngster is desperate to get a letter to Santa, not to ask for toys and treats, but to ask him to give her overworked single mother Betty-Lou (Rashida Jones) whatever she wants for Christmas. The kid teams up with her friends to try and trap Santa, so she can speak with the jolly old man face to face about her wish. While some might roll their eyes at Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch updating its story to include some degree of modern relevance (outside of a dig at Whole Foods), this addition helps nicely to bring out the author’s overall message of keeping the considerations of those less fortunate in mind during the holiday season. Here, unlike past incarnations of the story, it makes more sense that Cindy-Lou and the Grinch are kindred spirits, even if they won’t immediately realize or admit it.
But that also means I’m starting to look into Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch more than I should or that the filmmakers probably intended. It’s a film that just wants to give the kids a good time. Most of the jokes and gags won’t be funny to adults, but there’s still a handful of belly laughs to be found and a healthy dose of smiles. It’s not as musical as previous versions, but the tunes aren’t missed (although a snippet heard from a hip-hop take on the famous Grinch theme from Tyler, The Creator is far catchier than it has any right to be). It won’t make anyone’s heart grow two sizes, but it could leave viewers with an ear-to-ear grin. It’s equally as forgettable, satisfying, and comforting as a store bought hot chocolate. Sometimes that’s all you need.
Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, November 9, 2018.
Check out the trailer for Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch:
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