Adapting Dr. Seuss’s 1957 classic “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” is always going to be an endeavor fraught with danger. It’s a much-beloved, decades-old piece of literary history that was both a lovable tale for children as well as a scathing critique of Christmas commercialism, and thus is treated as a bit of a nostalgic untouchable. This is coupled with the fact that there already exists an animated adaptation — the 1966 special by the same name — that is universally revered. To make things more complicated, there was a live action… thing… that came out, a loud, obnoxious ode to migraine headaches. Directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Carrey, it lost much of the luster and affection of its predecessors and soured many people on the idea of updating the film.
But here we are. This time, Scott Mosier (best known as a co-collaborator with Kevin Smith) and Yarrow Cheney (co-director of the surprisingly likable The Secret Life of Pets) team up to direct a new animated version, simply titled The Grinch. Brought to you by Universal’s Illumination studio (the company most well-known for beating the dead horse of the Minions franchise into the ground and then excavating its corpse to be beaten anew), this one is a familiar, often predictable take on the story, but with a few fresh elements as well as a few notable exclusions. It still focuses on the titular Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch), a grumpy-yet-oddly-affable fellow who lives on the outskirts of Whoville, a town so god damned pleasant it makes your hair hurt. But the people of Whoville are kind and gentle and fun, and all of those lovely traits come to a head as they approach Christmas, their favorite time of year. The Grinch, of course, wants none of that, and instead decides to sabotage the whole affair. His plan hits any number of clever and funny hiccups along the way, and then is ultimately foiled by his own humanity (prompted by the innocent sweetness of one Cindy Lou Who, voiced by Cameron Seely).
But of course, you know all of that. What sets this version apart both works against it as well as in its favor. Gone is most of the anti-commercialism of the original, and instead, the film treats Cindy Lou’s and her fellow Who’s obsession with Christmas as more a love of the spirit of the holiday, rather than a mad dash for presents and possessions. At the same time, this is a kinder, gentler Grinch — in his own gruff way. No longer does he treat his poor dog Max like crap, but instead sees Max as his one true friend in the world, and while his manner is curt and abrupt, his genuine affection for the goofy pup is clear. The Grinch’s backstory has been tweaked a bit as well, but not to its detriment.
It may sound like they’ve created a whole other picture, but it’s not really. The film keeps the same emotional beats as those before it, though it’s definitely a safe, risk-free endeavor. That’s OK, though, because it’s beautifully animated and features a very good voice cast, with perhaps the best addition being Pharrell Williams as the narrator, giving a cheeky lilt to some of the lines from the book that meld well with the film’s vision. Cumberbatch is great as the Grinch, as are Rashida Jones as Cindy Lou’s hardworking mother and Kenan Thompson as a kindly if somewhat dim neighbor of the Grinch’s.
What all of that combines into is a cute, fun film that my son genuinely enjoyed, as did the multitude of other kids in the audience when I saw it. The humor is clean and charming, with the obvious pratfalls and silliness, but none of it with any kind of cruelty or meanness. Instead, it’s aggressively silly but also filled with a sense of genuine happiness that’s almost infectious. It’s not by any means a game changer, and I can’t guarantee that kids will be clamoring to watch it again next Christmas. But it’s amusing enough, and I will readily confess to laughing out loud on a few occasions. At the same time, its ending is ruthlessly mawkish and emotionally manipulative, but then again, that’s par for the course for nearly all Christmas films. At least that emotionalism rings true, and the film’s ultimate message — that Christmas is more about family and togetherness than it is about the bright lights and baubles — is one that’s hard to come down on too harshly.
In the end, The Grinch is just a sweet, well-intentioned update of the classic tale, blunting some of the original’s harsh edges and replacing its pointed criticisms for a story of positivity and generosity. Yes, its notes are familiar and often a bit too on-the-nose, but it works nicely in this framework. The kids seem to be enjoying it, and it’s funny and satisfying enough that at the end of the day, I can’t muster up enough inner Grinch to judge it too harshly.
Header Image Source: Illumination