It becomes increasingly difficult with each passing autumn not to sympathize more and more with the Grinch, Dr. Seuss’s green-furred grump who cannot abide Christmas. In this latest, totally uncalled for, and entirely superfluous big-screen adaptation of the classic picture book, he is annoyed by nonstop holiday songs on the radio and aggressive carolers who stalk him on the streets of Whoville... and as for the latter, at least, he’s clearly in the right to be cheesed off. But at least it’s December 20th as The Grinch opens. It’s legitimately Christmastime. Imagine if the Grinch lived in a world in which aggressive Christmas cheer was foisted upon him in early November. Like with manufactured corporate entertainment carefully constructed for maximum Yuletide blingy-ness and minimal actual impact.
It does not feel as hard won when this cuddlier Grinch’s heart grows three sizes.
This new Grinch, you see, appears to have been deliberately designed to be instantly forgettable, with all the disturbing rough edges of Dr. Seuss’s story and illustrations ironed out. The Christmas curmudgeon here is almost cuddly, more Oscar the Grouch than truly Grinchy, and his dog, Max, isn’t the mangy cur of Seuss but a happy, well-cared-for canine companion, perhaps a refugee from The Secret Life of Pets. (Pets is one of the other recent movies from animation studio Illumination, which also brings us this one. Grinch codirector Yarrow Cheney was also codirector on Pets; his codirector here, Scott Mosier, is making his feature debut.) Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice is unrecognizable as that of the Grinch, and he may be the best and only memorable thing about this relentlessly mediocre endeavor: he’s actually trying to do something fresh, and succeeding. But then again, would the submerged sweetness Cumberbatch brings out — very different from Boris Karloff’s voice work in the 1966 Chuck Jones cartoon short — truly be appropriate to a Grinch who hadn’t been softened? It doesn’t feel as hard won when his heart grows three sizes.
Oh, the Grinch still hates Christmas, and still vows to ruin the holiday for the people of Whoville by pulling a reverse Santa on Christmas Eve and stealing all their presents and decorations. But the movie’s heart is less in it than the Grinch’s is. Perhaps it’s inevitable in trying to pad out a short picture book to feature length, but the backstory for the Grinch’s meanness concocted by screenwriters Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow is pretty halfhearted: the Grinch was turned off the holiday as a child, when he was ignored and left alone in the Whoville orphanage at Christmas... which actually doesn’t make sense, seeing what we see of the Whos here, who, a tendency toward aggressive caroling aside, are genuinely nice and kind. This backstory also fails to answer the unasked but obvious question: Just what is the Grinch, anyway? An alien? Why is he the only one of his kind?
Even when life isn’t perfect in Whoville, it’s still pretty darn lacking in conflict. The biggest expansion to the story is the subplot in which Cindy Lou Who (the voice of Cameron Seely) wants to ask Santa to bring her mother, Donna Lou Who (the voice of Rashida Jones) — a hardworking night-shift nurse and single mom to Cindy and baby twin boys — something nice, because she’s always doing things for other people. This is what will, of course, set Cindy Lou on her Christmas Eve encounter with the Grinch-as-Santa, and his encounter with her kindness. But Mom Who is honestly doing just fine. (It’s never mentioned what happened to Cindy Lou’s father.)
If it’s all too mild, we can at least give thanks that there was no attempt to push this story in the direction that Ron Howard’s appalling 2000 live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas took, turning the Whos of Whoville into materialistic monsters, selfish and greedy, and turning the Grinch’s childhood into a nightmare in which he was subjected to actual cruelty and neglect. Maybe this simply is a story that shouldn’t be attempted at feature length; some questions are better left unanswered. (And still, The Grinch is not padded out very much. It’s only with a very long end-credits sequence and “Yellow Is the New Black,” a new short of delightful Minions shenanigans, tacked onto the front that it just about reaches 90 minutes. The movie itself is barely 80 minutes.)
Mostly what we get here is candy-colored slapstick and affable action sequences — see Cindy Lou racing through the snowy streets of Whoville to catch the mailman to deliver her letter to Santa! — and gentle, kindergarten-level humor: behold the Grinch in his tighty-whiteys! It’s perfectly suitable for small children, and perfectly bland and inoffensive to the adults accompanying them. Somehow, I don’t think Dr. Seuss would entirely approve.
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