How do you improve upon perfection? That’s the question that’s been plaguing Universal Pictures for almost twenty years, as pertains to Dr. Seuss’s immortal classic, How The Grinch Stole Christmas! In 1966 Chuck Jones managed to create a sensational distillation of the book’s roughly 60 pages. Lovingly animated, featuring the creepily dulcet tones of Boris Karloff and created one of the most easily identifiable Christmas jingles in existence. At the turn of the 21st Century, feeling the passage of time was long enough, Universal embarked on a live-action rendition. One that woefully tacked on extra content and allowed it’s lead to run roughshod over everything in his path. Now, they’ve returned to animation (CG this time), but kept the unnecessary padding. Creating in The Grinch, a movie that isn’t so much bad, as it is almost entirely inconsequential.
This time around The Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is presented more as a slightly morose Loki. He does’t outright avoid Whoville. Occasionally strolling into town when he needs groceries. Leaving a trail of commotion in his wake. A master of the mischievous, in a land that wouldn’t dare hurt a fly. It works in the context of the story being told, when it remembers which thread it currently finds most important. Subplots aplenty are started, only to be abandoned moments later. The who and why of what made our green skinned protagonist this way, is where things get a tad sticky. Even as the entertaining narration from Pharrell Williams (mixing Seuss’s words with added material) initially indicated no backstory needed delving into.
What starts out as whimsical mayhem, turns sour, when time comes to steal Christmas. At first, The Grinch is merely annoyed by the town’s Mayor (Angela Lansbury) insistence that this year’s festivities be “three times bigger”. Which apparently involves a tree 100 times larger than it ever need be. Naturally, he plots to knock it down, taking the Whos down a peg. Since this is an animated feature, he fails spectacularly. What comes after, borders on uncomfortable. Trapped in a cacophony of flashing lights and smiling faces, he flashes back to that holiday night, where as an orphan, he felt so alienated and alone, that he turned his back on society. Scared and hyperventilating, he retreats back home.
That’s right, The Grinch has a panic attack. One which takes him from wanting to minorly inconvenience the citizens of Whoville, to making them as miserable as he’s been, his entire life. Doing so turns a Scroogle-like misanthrope who would like nothing more to spend his winter in peace and quiet, into a more complexly layered character. One that the film isn’t really invested in exploring. Not when it has tiny children it wants to distract. And that’s exactly who the film caters to the most. As studios like Pixar or Laika invest in making films for the whole family, elevating the genre, The Grinch feels sadly behind in the times.
That’s not to say that everything here’s a mess. The animation is absolutely beautiful and exquisite. Rendered in a way approaching the fidelity of 3D at times, without the blur or glasses needed to view it. Whoville itself if a feast for the eyes. Not just in part because it looks as if were fashioned out of a large gingerbread structure. The Who’s here hew closer to the source material, than the nightmare creations of Ron Howard’s take from 2000. Cindy-Lou Who (Cameron Seely) has been aged up slightly here and works as an intriguing inversion of The Grinch. Mischievous in her sense of adventure and plot to ensnare Santa Claus, to personally share with him her Christmas wish. One that captures the spirit of the holiday, hoping to benefit her overworked and single mother (Rashida Jones).
It’s the rest of the padding that makes 86 minutes feel as if it overstays its welcome. Sequences have more of a vignette feel to them. Rather than progressing the narrative forward. One side jaunt sees Grinch and his trusty dog Max searching for reindeer. Another follows the encounters he has with the overly joyous Mr. Bricklebaum (Kennan Thompson), while attempting to steal decorations from his house. Both detours add little to things, serving only to lead the Grinch to make decisions he comes to quite quickly in the book. An attempt to update “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grich” comes off as confused and slapdash. Tyler, The Creator simply can’t hold a candle to Thurl Ravenscroft.
The Grinch may just be the perfect Christmas movie…to have on silently in the background, to show off a new television’s wonderful display. It’s largely a forgettable mishmash. With only a few moments that really sparkle. A film about how the holiday season isn’t about material goods, but those you spend it with. Even though it would like you to still purchase all the tie-in merchandise. There’s not only better versions of this story out there, yet also better films under the Illumination banner, to watch instead. At the very least it reminds everyone, regardless how many times a product gets remade, the original will thankfully always exist, to delight future generations.