Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch. Directed by Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney. Featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. Rating: 7 (out of 10)
No wonder he’s grouchy: the Grinch has been languishing in a cheerless release-date waiting room since his film was bumped from a year ago so as not to compete with two winter blockbusters: Thor Ragnarok and Justice League: Part One.
Now all the Grinch really has to worry about is Overlord and The Girl In the Spider’s Web, two much darker films opening Friday. That means Universal and Illumination studios will be seeing green with a projected big-take weekend.
Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch is a 3D CGI remake of the beloved 1966 cartoon classic, which I grew up on. My kids were less fortunate, and got Jim Carrey’s 2000 live-action version, a critical flop which still gives us all nightmares. Directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney have tweaked both the story and the Grinch himself, softening some of Carrey’s meanness for a G-rated audience and giving him a history to explain why he’s such a grouch.
Suited up for some mischief this time around is Benedict Cumberbatch voicing the green-guy himself. The Grinch lives in self-imposed exile with dog Max on Mt. Crumpit, in a cave packed with marvelous contraptions. Christmas is the most aggravating time of year for the Grinch, since he can hear the revelry from the town all the way to his cave. When the Whos plan to make the festivities three times bigger and brighter, the Grinch hatches a plan to pose as Santa Claus and steal all the presents, extinguishing the shiny spark of Whoville once and for all.
(I have to say I’m on Team Grinch on this one, at least as far as “bigger and brighter” goes: in the real-life version I’m the Grinch phoning my local grocery store to complain about Christmas music being played the week BEFORE Halloween.)
So there may be a tiny message there about the commercialization of Christmas, but the film focuses on the real reason behind the Grinch’s hatred of all things holiday: the audience is privy to his sad childhood trauma but the residents of Whoville are unaware, which is key to the themes of blanket forgiveness and goodwill at the crux of Theodor Geisel’s 1957 original book.
The creation of a feature film necessitated a backstory for the Grinch, some new characters, and the expansion of Whoville. Cindy-Lou Who (Cameron Seely, The Greatest Showman) is a few years older than “almost two” and has younger twin siblings, Buster and Bean. She has a master plan of her own that will prove at odds with the Grinch’s: she plans to kidnap Santa Claus and plead with him to make life easier for her single mom (Rashida Jones). Then there’s Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson), the Grinch’s ineffably jolly neighbour, cheerful even after his sleigh is purloined.
The citizens themselves aren’t the uniform, happy horde depicted in the original televised version, either: present-day Whos are a multi-ethnic lot. (Led by Angela Lansbury, in a cameo as the town’s mayor; Pharrell Williams is the narrator.)
Whoville is so detailed it’s almost distracting. It’s a bright and bustling metropolis, complete with a Who Foods and mass transportation. A bigger target necessitates much more planning on the Grinch’s part if he’s to pull off the perfect Christmas Eve heist: that means a dog-drone reconnaissance mission, a candy cane kitted with swiss-army-knife capabilities, and a use for Max’s single antler beyond painfully furrowing his brow. (Dog lovers will be happy to know that the borderline abuse inflicted by the Grinch in the 1966 version has been replaced by more amiable relationship; it’s a good thing, as seeing little Max being whipped into pulling that enormous sleigh always made me teary as a child.)
The billboard ads promoting the film in various cities were full of local snark about New Yorkers’ temperament or L.A.’s overabundance of actors. They were cleverly designed to get on adults’ good sides in the run-up to the film’s release. There’s less sarcasm in the actual film but enough parent-appropriate jokes to keep adults entertained (“I don’t know what’s in this cake, but I think I just saw Santa Claus!”). Language never goes beyond “heck” territory.
Love it or hate it, you’ll leave the theatre singing “Who is this mean fellow with his skin all green and his teeth all yellow?” thanks to rapper Tyler, The Creator, who offers up a catchy, shorthand version of Thurl Ravenscroft’s original song. (Side note: if I have another child, I’m naming him/her Thurl Ravenscroft.)
All told, Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch is an excellent holiday choice for kids. Your enjoyment of it will depend entirely on your relationship with the original. (Do you “dahoo doray” or dahoo don’t?) That includes whether or not you prefer the mystery of the Who people to knowing that they have jobs and stresses, just like us. It’s also how you’ll evaluate the voicework of Cumberbatch – excellent – but utilizing an American accent that made me yearn for the clipped British narration of Boris Karloff in the original.
Either way, the Grinch still starts out with a heart two sizes too small and is transformed by the healing presence of a child. That’s a message we can all get behind.