Dr. Seuss works haven’t had the best foray into feature films as many would think, his signature brand of artwork and humor providing plenty of creativity and vibrancy. And it hasn’t been terribly long since the first adaptation, 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, hit theaters. While not the best Yuletide picture, it did benefit from a dependably wacky performance from Jim Carrey – even through all that makeup – to be a general hit with audiences. Which is probably why Imagine Entertainment went back to that same well to turn Mike Myers into The Cat in the Hat in 2003. And while this writer can’t attest to the quality of that outing, the general consensus seems to be that it creeped basically everyone out and didn’t do nearly as well as a result. Well, that live-action Seussian venture didn’t last long. Time to bring back Jim Carrey and this time go animated with 2008’s Horton Hears a Who!, which, though well received, remains criminally forgotten ten years later and still stands as the only decent Seuss adaptation to date. But that’s not going to stop money, as audiences were treated to the animated renderings of The Lorax in 2012, which, though also a success, went about as well as a bunch of Thneebs in Thneebville, if you know what I mean. While Hollywood could have kept going with original Seuss adaptations with the likes of Fox in Socks, Green Eggs and Ham, or even One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish – I got screenplays for all of these, Universal, hit me up – it’s time for the cycle to repeat itself with Illumination Entertainment’s The Grinch. Because even though the story is virtually the same, it doesn’t count as Hollywood cynicism since the first one was live-action. So, money please. Granted, I’m probably being a little hard on them, seeing as Illumination’s animation style is as lush as ever, but again they prove they have little interest in doing a whole lot more than distracting your four-year-olds for 90 minutes so you can drop a little whisky in your mocha latte and pass out in the back of the theater. Yes, sometimes we get something like the first Despicable Me, where the humor matches the heart, but more often than not we end up with something like Minions, which isn’t terribly bad, but exists only for that sweet, sweet dollar. As is with 2018’s The Grinch. It may have great source material, but at the end of the day, our hearts will forever lie with the TV special from 1966, which had a suitable runtime of only 26 minutes.
Set in the funky mountain village of Whoville, The Grinch establishes the resident Whos as a collection of cheery, amiable, sing-songy Christmas fanatics, save for the titular Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch), a lanky, green-haired grump who dreads the holiday every year. His hatred has swelled so much, in fact, that he concocts a scheme whereby he steals the Who Christmas from right under their snub, red noses under the guise of Jolly St. Nick and his loyal dog Max as a reindeer. It may just be that he underestimates the Whos Yuletide values, particularly in the form of five-year-old Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), who wishes for nothing more than her workaholic mother Donna (Rashida Jones) to find some form of respite. Can the Grinch pull of his master heist and make everyone as miserable as him, or will he find it in his frigid heart to sing along?
Though I hardly need to answer that question. Truth is, if you’ve seen one version you’ve seen ’em all, varying filmmaking styles notwithstanding. Sure, Illumination finds some breathing room and adds a character here and there, much like Ron Howard’s version did, but what does it amount to in the grand scheme of things? Nothing. Again, truth is, there’s nothing you can really do to shake up the narrative without rubbing people the wrong way. This is a story that’s admittedly one of the all-times, but it’s also sacred and very constraining, creatively speaking. When you boil it all down, this is the story of a Christmas-themed party pooper who tries to poop on their party only to realize, through their acceptance of him regardless, that he needs to open up and embrace people, á la the Christmas spirit. And sure, I’ll admit that people don’t revisit the TV special year after year for the nuance or shock value, but when a story has been told so perfectly as it is and resists change, why would you go back to that same well? I reiterate, there are plenty of un-mined Seuss material for you to harvest and reintroduce to children everywhere. They may not be nearly as iconic or marketable, but at least they’d be different. Having said that, I don’t know why I’m pretending I don’t live in a capitalist society. I should just go back to a time when they made a movie because they had a really good idea.
But seeing as these movies are also comedies, I’m obliged to comment on that front to some degree. Yes, the script and the dialogue are largely updated to complement the times and to fit the mold of an Illumination venture, and while they’ve had success with even their most derivative attempts like The Secret Life of Pets, they pretty much drop the ball here. Every single joke seems to come in the form of some pratfall as they dumb down the Grinch character to that of a bumbling simpleton. And while your kids will find it amusing, you’ll see every single gag coming as if the quarterback is verbally letting you know whether he’s going to run the ball or pass. Usually, with a film like this, it’ll elicit a chuckle or two out of me, even if I’m just laughing straight at it rather than with it, but not once did my stiff lips lift into even the slightest grin. Sure, Benedict Cumberbatch again proves himself a master voice manipulator, having wowed with his motion capture performance as Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit trilogy, but it’s not enough to elevate what’s written as a weak character. Not to mention he’s oftentimes the only speaking character in multiple scenes where virtually nothing happens. This is one of those weird instances where the movie could have actually benefitted from having someone like Jim Carrey riff and be completely weird, but instead this Grinch is tame and about as interesting as dry egg nog.
Still, it should at least be said that this movie is technically impressive, the festive colorings lending themselves well to the animation style. Sure, you may discredit animation quality as something that’s a given, and I’d be mostly apt to agree with you, but there are other times where we get something like Norm of the North, which looks like it could have been made by Cartoon Network fifteen years ago. So, in that sense, I was at least pleased that I had something pretty to look at.
I wish I had more to say on the matter, but this turned out to be essentially a nothing film. Never really justifying its own existence, The Grinch merely stretches out its limited premise with a series of lame gags until it hits that standard runtime. It’s not offensively bad, but it’ll make you yawn if you’re any older than ten. Between this and Bohemian Rhapsody that preceded it by a week, I’ve just about had it with Hollywood putting in minimal effort on something they know they’re guaranteed to break the box office with. Just, please, don’t ever touch A Christmas Story; it’s perfect.
Final Score: 4/10