One of the best things you can say about Illumination Entertainment’s animated take on The Grinch is that it’s somewhat of an improvement on the live-action version from 18 years ago. That calamitously overproduced misfire gave the Grinch a change-of-heart moment in the first 15 minutes that left the story with nowhere to go, and was a byproduct of the approach that undercuts both features. Once again, the new Grinch attempts to explain and rationalize a character who really doesn’t need it.
The Grinch works best, as he does in Dr. Seuss’ classic book and Chuck Jones’ gold-standard TV special, when his meanness is simply a given. Part of what makes him a classic character is that he represents that Scrooge that exists in all of us—a little in some, a lot in others—who wants to say “Bah, humbug!” to the enforced joy and/or overcommercialization of the Christmas season. The Grinch briefly gets at that during an early sequence in which our green, furry antihero walks into Whoville on a shopping trip, and is pursued by a gang of aggressive carolers trying too hard to get him into the holiday spirit.
If you don’t recall the Grinch going on a shopping trip in the Seuss or Jones versions…well, that’s the other problem with both feature expansions of the Grinch’s story. To wit: the Grinch’s story doesn’t need a feature expansion. It works perfectly at 60 illustrated pages or a half hour of cartoon time, and the new film proves once again that the only reasons to retell it at (in this case) 86 minutes are commercial ones. In that sense, it’s a little disingenuous for the narration to explicitly tell us that the brightly wrapped gifts the Grinch pilfers represent greed, when the movie itself is an attempt to cash in on a well-known property—and, in one high-speed hurtle through Whoville, an apparent setup for a future theme-park ride.
To be fair, directors Yarrow Cheney (who co-helmed Illumination’s The Secret Life of Pets) and Scott Mosier (Kevin Smith’s longtime producer) have overseen a sparkling visual production. The gleaming snow and glittering decorations of Whoville are rendered in loving fashion, the better to give the Grinch (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) plenty of cheer to rebel against and snarl about. This time, he’s given a backstory spelling out why he’s so down on Christmas, which is likely to have you less nodding in understanding than wondering why it’s necessary.
There’s also a subplot about the Grinch’s attempts to shanghai a real reindeer to pull his sled during his mission to steal Christmas from the Whos, which has a couple of chuckleworthy bits but is mostly a distraction on the way to the important stuff. The same goes for the expanded role given Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), who’s now a little more than two and wants nothing more for Christmas than for her single mother Donna (Rashida Jones) to not have to work so hard all the time. It’s a sweet gesture, though an overly familiar one in the family/holiday-movie milieu; we’re introduced to Donna as she is, yes, running to catch a bus. Deciding that a face-to-face meeting with Santa would convey her wishes better than a letter, Cindy Lou engages a few of her pals in a plot to trap St. Nick, a subplot that seems to have strayed in from another movie entirely. All this stuff serves only to dilute the emotional power of the core story.
The best elaboration on the original material by screenwriters Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow is the additional rhyming narration appended to Seuss’ verse (all read by Pharrell Williams), which faithfully preserves the author’s voice. The same cannot be said about the hip-hop remix of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” that plays early in the movie, and doesn’t hold a Christmas candle to Thurl Ravenscroft’s classic rendition. Similarly, while Cumberbatch gives a committed reading of the Grinch’s exasperation, calculation and transformation, he just can’t compare to the immortal tones of Boris Karloff as the original Grinch/narrator.
That’s really the bottom line: Everything this movie does, the ’60s cartoon did better. (And who on Earth decided to voice-cast that international treasure Angela Lansbury, and then give her only one scene as Whoville’s mayor?) The Grinch will no doubt provide a satisfying holiday diversion for family audiences, and little kids will probably dig it, but we older grinches who grew up on that TV version can only hope that someone doesn’t try yet another unnecessary movie 18 years from now.