Diving deep into Minions territory, Illumination’s revamp of the holiday classic sands off the Grinch’s hard edges and turns him into a blandly grumpy uncle.
The billboards for Dr Seuss’ The Grinch feature the eponymous antihero dishing out insults to the viewer. From the ads, you would think that the Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the 2018 incarnation of the Dr. Seuss classic is acerbic and mean-spirited. You would be wrong – Illumination Entertainment’s (yes, the Minions people) version of the green Santa impostor is utterly toothless, lacking the nastiness of Boris Karloff in the animated original or the camp silliness of Jim Carrey in the live-action redux.
For the most part, the story plays out like in the original Dr. Seuss fable: the Grinch overlooks the happy town of Whoville, whose participants are steeped in Christmas cheer. Bitter about their lack of bitterness, the Grinch launches a scheme along with his dog Max and reindeer Fred to ruin their Christmas – impersonate Santa Claus and steal all their gifts on Christmas night. Of course, all that is complicated by the incessant efforts of Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), who desperately wants to meet Santa, which threatens to blow the Grinch’s cover.
While Cumberbatch’s performance is far from memorable (none of the performances go above passable), I don’t think you can pin the blame on him. Well, except the American accent; he still hasn’t quite locked that one down. Directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney want to make the Grinch sympathetic, but not at the expense of the Whos. Instead, the reason the Grinch doesn’t like Christmas is because he‘s an orphan, and thus has never had anyone to celebrate Christmas with. This isn’t the worst backstory, but it’s clear that the Grinch’s isolation is mostly self-imposed.
While the 2000 Ron Howard film portrayed the Grinch as an outsider who is detested by the Whos, the 2018 Grinch freely walks around Whoville without being harassed (or even noticed) by Whos. There is even a Who named Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson) who considers the Grinch to be a friend. As such, the Grinch’s Grinchiness is just a front. The only time the Grinch even approaches true evil is during the movie’s opening scenes.
The Grinch isn’t really given much time to be mean, as he doesn’t interact much with the Whos. His story mostly stays with him preparing to steal Christmas, staying relatively faithful to the book. However, the film does throw in one extra subplot, as Cindy embarks on a quest to capture Santa Claus so he can make life easier for her single mother, Donna (Rashida Jones). The two subplots barely intersect until Christmas Eve, which feels a lot weaker than if Cindy and the Grinch had interacted with each other.
Cindy’s subplot also highlights how weak the justification for the Grinch hating Christmas is. While Cindy and Donna are shown as more selfless than most, the rest of Whoville isn’t portrayed as mean or materialistic. Yes, they like the presents, food, and decorations that come from their Christmas Who-bilation, but they seem to genuinely care about the Whoville community.
Adding to the more favorable depiction of the Whos is the fact that Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch’s depiction of Christmas in Whoville is overtly religious. While there aren’t any churches or Christian symbols in the film, the Whos sing carols explicitly about the birth of Jesus and the salvation he brings. Not only does that bring weird theological implications to The Grinch (was there a Who-Christ who was Who-cified for the sins of Who-kind?) it also makes any brief mention of the Whos’ greed ring hollow.
The shallow decrying of materialism does beg the question:what’s the point of this retelling? The answer (besides making money) is to “modernize” the classic story. Unfortunately, the only way they do that (besides throwing in a couple of smart phones) is by having Pharrell Williams narrate the story and Tyler the Creator covering the iconic “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch”.
Pharrell isn’t great, but be brings his own charm to the role (you can almost hear the giant hat he’s presumably wearing in the voice booth). The biggest issue with the narration is that it doesn’t feel very “Seussical”. They barely use Dr. Suess’s lines and even forgo the book’s thesis statement: “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more). The rhymes that were written specifically for the film don’t do much better, with the meter often feeling off and the rhymes seeming forced. Pharrell tries his best, but it’s not enough.
The updated theme song is probably the worst thing that Tyler the Creator has ever done: it’s a muddled mess that doesn’t works as either a show tune or a rap song. If the new song had stayed a Jazz number with modern instrumentation it might have worked, but as is it’s just a sad attempt at making Seuss seem hip. Too bad that Hollywood will never understand that Dr. Seuss’ distinct lack of trendiness is why we’re still reading him half a century later.
Still, Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch manages to bring the full force of Illumination’s admittedly strong animation and art direction to bear. Whoville is colorful, warm and bright, the buildings are curvy, tall, and skinny like the architecture in Seuss’s books, but with a vaguely European vibe to ground them in reality. The effects are also charming and detailed: the wool on the sweaters looks fuzzy, the ice looks slippery, and the snow has weight. It’s a great mix of fantasy and reality that makes the film look like a Christmas card in the best sense.
Unfortunately, art and animation are the only things that really excel for Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch. Everything else about the film is the apotheosis of mediocre Hollywood filmmaking – the performances are OK, the jokes are predictable and the story is pointless. In a world where the 1966 TV classic still holds up 50+ years later and the 2000 live-action version features an amazing Jim Carrey performance, the 2018 movie just can’t cut the roast beast.
Dr Seuss’ the Grinch puts termites in the smile of audiences this Friday, November 9th.