THE GRINCH Review: Humbug Galore

Dr. Seuss’ timeless story The Grinch never needed a feature length adaptation. Honestly, none of his books did, but especially The Grinch. Seuss’ story of the creature that despises Christmas because he fundamentally misunderstands it already has its perfect adaptation in Chuck Jones’ efficient and touching 1966 cartoon. Perfectly complementing the book by sticking to Seuss’ words and narrative exclusively lends it a power that remains simple and potent to this day. Adding to the story only weighs it down.

One would think the lesson would be learned after Ron Howard’s garish and ugly live-action rendition starring Jim Carrey. To its credit, Howard’s film fleshed out the denizens of Whoville in a way that deepened and complemented the anti-consumerist message, and more than justified the Grinch’s hatred. But that only gets you a little further, and the rest of the film is padded with endless amounts of Carrey mugging through his make-up. You could do a lot worse for muggers to do that, but don’t pretend your film isn’t gonna move like a brick.

And now Illumination Entertainment has gotten their hands on the story to bring it back to the realm of animation. Having already botched Seuss’ environmentalist fable The Lorax by turning it into a commercial, the studio, thankfully, manages to at least get the message right with this one. However, they face the same problem Howard’s film failed to address in how to fill a feature when the entirety of your story could play out over the entirety of a third act.

The answer this time is to graft the story onto the template set by Illumination’s flagship property, Despicable Me. You have your grump of a protagonist, here voiced by an unrecognizably American Benedict Cumberbatch; he’s got his adorably clumsy underling, here a dog rather than Gru’s annoying yellow pills; he’s even got his sprawling secret lair and a hardcore inventor’s streak. And when he finally develops his evil plot to steal Christmas, the villain package is complete.

Between the cracks of that template, the film is filled with the bland, generic cuteness passing as humor that Illumination is known for. The animators ape Seuss’ illustration remarkably in the architecture and environments, but in a continued stroke of laziness, all of Whos look exactly like any other featureless blob from any of the studio’s other films. With their perfectly circular eyes and slit of a mouth, the only emotion the animation ever conveys is constant surprise. The vocal performances give even less, entirely unemotive and dispassionate. These qualities become disastrous in the film’s prominently features side plot, in which Cindy Lou Who resolves to meet Santa in order to ask him to make her pleasantly overstretched mom happy. A demonstration of selflessness in this way is in keeping with the true spirit of Christmas the story is about, but the goal is always this nebulous desire, and when the character doesn’t sound like she actually cares, then it becomes impossible for the audience to care.

Yarrow Cheney &
Scott Mosier

Benedict Cumberbatch
Cameron Seely
Rashida Jones
Kenan Thompson
Pharrell Williams

Screenplay by
Michael LeSieur and
Tommy Swerdlow

The only new thing the film adds to the Grinch himself is in the characterization. Primarily, they made him a millenial. His meanness is presented as general frustration, pettiness, and passive-aggressive misanthropy, delivered in a manner insidiously engineered for maximum memeability. Oh the horror to think of the #relatable gifs your aunt’s gonna be sharing on Facebook after this movie. In an attempt to modernize him, the character is actually tamed and watered down.

The Grinch will likely entertain your kids, with its inoffensive, bland cuteness and slow burn gags in place of cleverness and wit. But it has nothing of value to add to the story thematically nor aesthetically. The best parts come in the third act, where the film is forced to adhere closest to the original story, and this section also moves fastest. As such, you’d be better served watching the Chuck Jones short again. For all the other useless filler, one funny gag involving a trip to Whoville manages to instill the desired effect of empathy. As the Grinch encounters any number of enthusiastic revelers with disgust and loathing, in those moments the thought occurred to me: I get it. I, too, would rather be anywhere else right now.

The Grinch is currently playing in theaters everywhere.