Illumination’s take on The Grinch is not incompetent but it is thoroughly inessential.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Let’s take a page from Dr. Seuss and not waste words: yes, Illumination’s version of The Grinch is better than their version of The Lorax from 2012. Their Lorax, for the benefit of those fortunate souls who have either not seen it or managed to blot all traces of it from their memories, took Seuss’ most urgent, despairing and quietly horrifying story, a fable about man-made environmental destruction and human greed dooming the world and how even regular Joes like you and I are complicit in that fact, and turned it into a wacky, upbeat, chase-heavy, simplistic, padded-to-heck abomination whose tie-in marketing was used to sell SUVs – that last part is not a joke, this really happened. Everything about Illumination’s handling of that story should have instantly barred them from coming within 3,000 ft of a Dr. Seuss story ever again, much like how Mike Meyers ensured we’ll never get a live-action film of one of Seuss’ works so long as the family estate exists, but it was also the 11th highest-grossing film of 2012 in the US so they’ve been granted the keys for a second crack at things. Credit to the studio, their Grinch doesn’t pervert the meaning of the original text into the exact antithesis of Seuss’ messaging, so that does represent a marked improvement on their last effort.
Next on those important questions: yes, this is better than Ron Howard’s utterly bananas live-action version which is still one of the 00s most bewildering blockbusters. Howard’s Grinch has seen a series of attempts to rehabilitate its reputation in recent years thanks to a combination of nostalgia from those who grew up with it and a residual love for Jim Carrey’s balls-to-the-wall performance as the title character (and the man himself who was one of the finest to ever take up the profession of comedy), but it is a horrific movie. Ugly visual designs, mean-spirited to the point of nihilism, tonally confused, gaudy and overblown, plus the most bizarre attempt at retroactively grafting unneeded backstory onto a deliberately simple character we had until Tim Burton and Johnny Depp decided that what Willy Wonka was most missing were Michael Jackson-referencing daddy issues. Although it too adds unnecessary backstory onto the title character and subsumes Seuss’ signature art into the Illumination house-style a little too much, this new Grinch is otherwise thankfully free of all the bugs that cratered Howard’s grotesque unicorn.
Now, the biggest one: no, there is no reason to watch this Grinch when the Chuck Jones animated TV special from 1966 is still readily available and easy to acquire – in fact, at time of writing, buying a brand spanking new copy of it on DVD from Amazon costs £5.99, which is less than the cost of just one ticket at most cinemas. Look, I know that many people, perhaps even many who work at Illumination, will want me to rate this new all-CG tentpole take on How the Grinch Stole Christmas, a timeless and seminal work of children’s literature that still holds up and is still beloved to this day, on its own terms, free from any past adaptations no matter how old or canonised they may be. After all, there is a whole new generation of kids out there who experienced neither the perplexing live-action version nor the seminal animated classic (since I am 90% certain from my research that Boomerang don’t play cartoons from before Y2K anymore), so there must be an inherent value in and untapped market for this new version. And, admittedly, it is a largely-faithful retelling of the story whose big narrative beats still carry an affecting power no matter how many years have passed or how many times one has experienced them.
That’s all well and good, but Chuck Jones’ Grinch ran for 26 minutes and arguably even that required a bit of padding in the form of those classic songs – ‘Welcome Christmas’ even makes an unaltered appearance in its required spaces here, ‘You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch’ does not – and some of Jones’ signature slapstick, some of which directors Yarrow Cheney (The Secret Life of Pets) and Scott Mosier nick wholesale for this new film. Illumination’s Grinch is almost three times that length and, unsurprisingly, is stuffed to the gills with the filler that one should expect from the makers of Despicable Me and Secret Life of Pets. Copious chase and fly-through scenes designed to show off the expensive CGI, extended setpieces for sections of story that could otherwise be covered in montage, half-baked subplots used to eat up time – Cindy Lou (Cameron Seely) gets a whole parallel plot revolving around her hopes to trap Santa and get him to help out her overworked single mom (Rashida Jones), a narrative turn that has no conclusion and feels more cynically-calculated and blatantly-pandering an attempted paeon to that section of the audience than Drake’s similar ‘Nice for What’ – and random dance bits set to “wacky” needle-drops that occur every single time focus-testers deem the kids at risk of being bored.
In fairness, none of this is as bad as in previous Illumination works or other condescending kids’ movies – well, except the needle-drops, because what Dr. Seuss was apparently crying out for was the addition of Lou Bega and BROCKHAMPTON – because it doesn’t otherwise take away from the story we all know and love. But none of this adds anything, either. Well, that’s a lie, it technically adds a good hour, and it definitely tacks an additional 15 minutes onto the end of the movie by arbitrarily delaying the payoff of the tale’s climactic beat for another couple of scenes. But it doesn’t add anything meaningful, instead just stretching a short story so far and so thinly that a film working from foundations in the slightest bit lesser than these in any way would have come apart at the seams.
And it’s not like Illumination’s writers, here credited to Tommy Swerdlow (Cool Runnings and Snow Dogs) and Michael LeSieur (You, Me and Dupree plus Keeping Up with the Joneses), couldn’t have tried new things or haven’t revised certain aspects. Akin to Howard’s stab, their Grinch (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch inexplicably using a nasally American accent) has also been given a sad backstory to explain his hatred of Christmas although this one has been designed to make the character much softer and, ironically, less grinchy. It paints the Grinch less as a callous being of pure spite and malice (as in Seuss and Jones’ versions), and especially less a victim of societal discrimination and bullying (as in Howard’s version), but more as a lonely and depressed man who has been hurt by heartbreak before and is so terrified by the prospect of it happening again that he’s refusing to interact with society meaningfully as a defence mechanism. He’s not a bad guy, he’s just given so into his cynicism that he’s hoping he can somehow fill the void in his heart through minor nuisances designed to bring others down to his misery.
Whilst this means that our new Grinch effectively starts the story on the precipice of being a good guy already – he’s even a kind and affectionate master to his ever-loyal dog Max – is a turn that relies on the kinds of reductive pop psychology typically employed by lazy writers, and makes his decision to steal Christmas (the entire hook of the story) actually somewhat out-of-character, I’d argue it’s a pretty clever spin on the character. We may lose the simplicity of Seuss’ original tale, about an evil and selfish old crone learning the value of empathy and generosity, but in its place there’s the chance to explore more complicated topics such as seasonal depression, the difficulty of fighting against one’s worst impulses disguised as defence mechanisms in order to let people back in, the search for meaning and a surrogate family…
But much like everything else Illumination stuffs into The Grinch in an attempt to reach feature-length – and they don’t even quite manage that, since there’s an additional five-minute Minion short film beforehand, referencing O Brother, Where Art Thou? of all things – the film doesn’t actually do anything meaningful with this change. It doesn’t provide new joke fodder (Howard’s film had more cutting insights about society’s fanatical embrace of the holiday season), it doesn’t complicate the Grinch or his relationships with other characters, and it doesn’t change the story in any significant way. If anything, it reeks of a studio terrified that a truly mean character would repel children and cut into potential profits, so they smoothed over a risk factor without taking the time to replace it with something else or recognise that said risk was the entire point of the work in the first place. Early reads that this Grinch would effectively be Despicable Me but with Gru and the girls swapped out for Grinch and Cindy Lou were not that far off.
With that said, I didn’t hate it and it still feels like Dr. Seuss despite the 2010s animated kids film padding and Illumination’s shameless recycling of their own winning formula. Unlike with their complete and total botching of The Lorax, The Grinch is still recognisably The Grinch and therefore still has a mischievous sense of fun when he’s going house to house taking the last cans of Who Hash, and it still has a punch of sweet joy when his heart grows three sizes upon hearing the Whos sing. Quite frankly, you have to go out of your way to mess up a story as simple and irresistible as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which Illumination thankfully have not. But all of their additions are just distractions, all of their changes sow seeds of promise that go unfulfilled, and their execution of the base material is wholly unspectacular. In a perverse way, I actually sort of prefer the Howard version because at least that demonstrated ambition and passion, utterly misguided though they may have been.
The Grinch is fine, I guess? If you have absolutely no other way of experiencing Dr. Seuss’ story, then it will do the job decently enough. But, once again, the Chuck Jones special is still easily-acquirable at less than the cost of a single cinema ticket and the book itself is hardly Arc of the Covenant-levels of rare. Why settle for the expensive mediocrity when cheaper and superior means are just as readily available?
Callum Petch gets down in Brooklyn.