Grinch, The (United States/China, 2018)

November 08, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Grinch, The Poster

The 1966 animated TV Christmas special, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” is as perfect an adaptation of the Dr. Seuss book as one is likely to find. Featuring an iconic vocal performance by Boris Karloff (doing double-duty as the narrator and the title character), the program takes only 22 minutes to tell the story of a deliciously nasty green humanoid who discovers there’s more to Christmas than material things. Ironic, then, that materialism plays such a big part in the decision to “remake” this property for the big screen in 2018. “Hollow cash grab” is one way to describe The Grinch. Equally appropriate would be “soulless abomination.”

The movie feels like a generic animated film rushed into production and slapped together without much care about whether the final product is respectful to the source material. Since it required only 22 minutes for the 1966 version to tell the whole story, about an hour’s worth of filler had to be added into the new interpretation to pad it out to the still-skinny 80-minute length. Maybe kids will be appreciative – they watch dumber and more artistically bankrupt material on Nickelodian and the Cartoon Network, to be sure. But this movie is such a betrayal of the original (both in terms of storytelling and message) that some adults will find it hard to stomach. It’s also boring, so I could see where it might be useful for insomniacs.

The core story can be found for those who care to look deeply enough. The green furry Grinch (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch), who inhabits a cave high atop Mount Crumpit, hates Christmas. Irritated by the love shown for this holiday by the inhabitants of the nearby settlement of Whoville, he decides to deprive them of it. On Christmas Eve, he dresses like Santa Claus and rides into the town on a sleigh. Except, instead of giving presents, he takes them away – along with decorations, feast food, and even Who-hash! But The Grinch has a lesson to learn about the importance of friendship and family as an antidote to being alone and, in the end, he returns everything to the Who-people and joins little Cindy Lou-Who (Cameron Seely), her mother Donna (Rashida Jones), and the whole Lou-Who clan for Christmas dinner.

I haven’t mentioned the fat reindeer recruited by the Grinch or the subplot concocted by Cindy Lou-Who to capture Santa Claus or the Grinch’s visits to Whoville and his interaction with the overly friendly Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson). Why? Because these unwieldy and failed appendages are some of the “flourishes” added by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow to help transform The Grinch into something almost unrecognizable. Say what you will about Ron Howard’s live action version, at least it showed a degree of respect for the source material and didn’t make a mockery out of it.

Anyone who has watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” will likely remember a few things. First and foremost is Karloff’s stentorian voice. Here, in a decision as baffling as it is inappropriate for the material, the choice was made to go with the smooth, dulcet tones of Pharrell Williams. As good a singer as he is, he’s the anti-Karloff. He recites a combination of lines from the Dr. Seuss books and faux-Dr. Seuss material that Theodore Geisel never imagined. (His 97-year old widow, by the way, gets an honorary Executive Producer credit.) The movie also radically changes the look of Whoville’s inhabitants and ages Cindy Lou-Who by about a half-dozen years so she can be given dialogue to go along with her unnecessary storyline.

In terms of production values, The Grinch fails to impress. The animation is bland and not up to the level we have come to expect from big screen cartoons. Danny Elfman’s score is unmemorable and the arrangement of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is disappointing. Benedict Cumberbatch’s vocal performance is nondescript and lacks the authority (and growl) one would expect from The Grinch.

When Howard made the dubious decision to do a live-action version of the story with Jim Carrey buried under Rick Baker’s makeup, I was skeptical, but the movie won me over. It hasn’t aged well and certainly hasn’t replaced the 1966 cartoon in anyone’s video library or memory but it wasn’t offensive. The same can’t be said of the new version. Perhaps The Grinch strikes such a discordant note because it’s animated and that choice facilitates a direct comparison. There’s no aspect in which the 2018 version seems like anything but a hapless, bloated imitation.

Grinch, The (United States/China, 2018)

Director: Yarrow Cheney, Scott Mosier
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Cameron Seely, Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson, Pharrell Williams
Home Release Date: 2019-02-05
Screenplay: Michael LeSieur, Tommy Swerdlow, based on the book by Dr. Seuss
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:20
U.S. Release Date: 2018-11-09
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Animated
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1