The Grinch and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney
Is it already time for the holiday season? Can’t we postpone it for another three months or something? No, of course not. The only thing as certain in life as Death and Taxes is the ever expanding period of time known as THE HOLIDAY SEASON where good will and cheer are sold to us in gift baskets and wrapping paper. If you couldn’t tell already I’m not the biggest fan of the season’s greatest excesses even if I do take some joy in trying to find the perfect gifts for people and buying the shiny wrapping paper to put it in. Still, it’d be nice if we could contain it to the month of December, but no; were stuck with Holiday Music, Holiday Sales, and of course… Holiday Movies. With Illumination having already turned The Lorax into a rather detestable piece of confused anti-corporate nonsense, they’re back to the Dr. Seuss well to turn the man’s most beloved creation into yet another big screen adaptation just in time for theaters to start hanging up the tinsel. Will this be an improvement on the studio’s previous output, or are we in for yet more Illumination mediocrity? Let’s find out!!
You see, every Who down in Whoville likes Christmas a lot which is good for keeping the economy strong and red hot! But the Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) who lives just north of Whoville does not seem pleased. Perhaps a trip to the store will put him at ease. With his dog Max in tow, he treks through the snow, to the city of Whoville to where all he can think is NO. No to the consumerism, no to the cheer, just get him to the grocery store to buy provisions and beer. Along the way he meets Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), who seems nice enough, but has nothing to do in this rather thin plot. There’s a story I guess about her finding Santa, but really she’s on hand to be cute and her likeness used on promotional bottles of Fanta. Anyway, The Grinch takes a while to get properly pissed, but he eventually decides that something is amiss. This lousy holiday just makes him way too stressed, so perhaps he’ll steal Christmas and you know the rest! Will he find happiness in ruining this day for others, or is there a way for him to live peacefully with his Who brothers? Will Cindy Lou Who find the answers she needs, or will her tale be lost in the script weeds? The question of course on everyone’s mind is why should I see this when Netflix is only $13.95!? No wait, it’s $13.99. DANG IT!!
Look, if you want a fair and unbiased review of this movie, you aren’t about to get it here. Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas is one of my favorite movies of all time which I know sounds like a cliché because the only thing more stereotypical about Millennials besides looking at our phones all day is loving this ridiculous movie, but it’s a film that genuinely speaks to my taste in terms of style, comedy, and even my particular brand of cynicism for the Holiday season. Any movie that tries to either recreate the magic or surpass it in its own way is in for the most uphill battle imaginable, and I’m gonna tell you right now that this movie doesn’t reach those lofty heights. Not even close. Still, does that mean it’s a bad movie in its own right? Not necessarily, but then I have little tolerance for Illuminaiton films to begin with; especially when I KNOW they can do better than make trite family films (*cough* Sing *cough*). Sadly that’s not the case here so while it’s never really that bad or the least bit infuriating, even with me holding it to such a ridiculously high standard, it’s also not the least bit inspired and will just blow past you for ninety minutes until you can leave and do something else with your life. There are highlights to be sure and I’ll even say that it does surpass the Ron Howard film in one particular way, but if you’re asking me then I’ll just tell you to watch the other movie on Netflix. Then again if this movie was ten times better I’d STILL tell you to watch the other movie on Netflix, so take that for what it’s worth.
So how does this film fall short of the Ron Howard film which is OBVIOUSLY what you want to hear about? If I were to try and narrow it down to something nice and pithy, I’d say that his movie was one of big ideas while this is about polishing old ones. Ron Howard and his PHENOMENAL crew all brought their own unique and outright strange energy to what could have been a straightforward adaptation; making what is essentially one of the best criticisms of the soul deadening nature of the commercialized holiday season, while also reaffirming what makes that time of year so important in its own quirky surreal way. This movie on the other hand just feels like another Illumination film to sit alongside The Lorax and Despicable Me which I guess isn’t the WORST thing out there (I’ve seen FAR worse animated films than what they’ve put out), but it is what it is; cartoony Pablum that can barely muster enough effort to do anything meaningful with the source material. Heck, the only comparatively bold decision they made here was to NOT put in a bunch of Minions knock offs like they did in The Lorax which by the way is SO much worse than this movie. Well that and the fact the Whos sing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen which presumably means that there’s a Who Christ and I don’t think any of us want to go down that road. For all its blandness, at least this movie doesn’t tie itself into a Gordian Knot trying to find a narrative through line that can sustain ninety minutes. Instead of coming up with a new villain to make the ACTUAL villain not the villain or whatever the hell happened in that movie, this one just splits things up between The Grinch being a jerk before trying to steal Christmas and a subplot about Cindy Lou Who trying to meet Santa; neither of which are particularly inspired but at are at least serviceable here.
Still, as blandly competent as the whole thing is, it just feels so pointless when compared to what Ron Howard’s film did and just how lovingly crafted it was. Doing a side by side comparison, just on a scripting level, you can see where this falls woefully short on almost every level. The story in Ron Howard’s movie was tightly written so that there weren’t really any wasted moments or characters where in this film everything is just blandly pleasant and nothing truly connects together. I’ll give you an example which means I’ll go into minor spoilers for both films, so be warned before going any further. In both films, the Grinch has a tragic backstory that motivates his grinchy attitude now, i.e. a crappy childhood. In Ron Howard’s film in makes sense because the film spends half an hour setting up Whoville as a place full of shallow fools who will go along to get along which motivates Cindy Lou Who to find some meaning in the holiday season that leads to her wanting to find out about The Grinch where she hears the story about the kids bullying him which goes back to establishing Whoville as a place that falls short of the utopian ideal that they constantly bray on about during that time of the year. The world is properly set up, the characters are properly motivated, and the stories intertwine to tell a compelling narrative. In this movie, Cindy Lou Who and The Grinch’s stories are completely separate, so she’s not trying to find out about The Grinch and therefore the film randomly throws his backstory in at about the halfway point without any real plot reason to do so. When we DO get the backstory, it doesn’t fit in the world that they’ve set up which is just as ostentation and excessive as the one on the Howard film, but without the tiniest hint of cynicism. In THIS version, The Grinch was THE ONE orphan in the city who lived alone in an orphanage which makes absolutely no sense to exist in such an un-ironically idealized world! The setting feels perfunctory, The Grinch’s backstory lacks any bite, and the two stories (his and Cindy’s) never meaningfully cross each other until the point they do in the original story. It feels like they just wanted to make a new and shiny version of the cartoon and only added fluff in order to stretch it to a feature film, and while the results aren’t HORRIBLE, it’s still completely lacking in creative spark. The story Ron Howard and co told in their movie was not a direct copy of the one that Dr. Seuss wrote and because of that we got something brilliant and beautifully absurd. Here we’re just getting the bare minimum and more than anything else I resent this movie for doing that.
Now to pull back a bit here, there are some things that I think are worth noting about the movie and even one place where they actually improved upon the Howard film. Now I know that I just got finished explaining how The Grinch’s backstory is completely hollow, BUT I will concede that they do something kind of interesting with the character here that distinguishes him from Jim Carrey’s version and even Boris Karloff’s in the original animated short. He’s not AS Grinchy as he was in those other films; rather he comes off as someone with anxiety more than anything else. Sure, he’s intentionally a jerk whenever he gets the chance, but more so than ever before it’s clearly a front for his unresolved issues, and in one scene in particular where he’s stuck in a loud and boisterous crowd, well he’s not that far off from how I tend to react when I’m around that many people. Obviously I enjoy the over the top nastiness of Jim Carrey’s Grinch more than the one here, but it’s at least SOMETHING to distinguish this film from that one. The one place where it’s an IMPROVEMENT though is the final act where they both recreate the bulk of the book; namely the stealing Christmas part. Again, I do love the absurd delirium with which the Howard film decided to film it, but Illumination shows their genuine animation chops here with an imaginative sequence that’s almost worth watching on its own; especially when he starts using that awesome oversized candy canes which he uses like The Penguin’s umbrella. I BETTER get one of those for Christmas, by the way!!
I don’t know what to tell you on this one. I wasn’t particularly “thrilled” with it, but I also don’t hate it either which I guess is a good sign considering how much I revere the Ron Howard movie and how short this one falls to it. Is it worth seeing in theaters? Eh… I mean there aren’t a lot of kids movies out right now and it’s a MUCH better holiday movie than whatever that Nutcracker movie was trying to be, so… maybe. I mean I STILL recommend you just pulling up the Ron Howard movie on Netflix or finding a cheap dvd of it instead, but aside from that it’s not the WORST way you can spend a weekend; especially if you have to entertain younger viewers. The only reason I’ll remember this film at all is because of its tenuous connection to one of the best movies of all time, but other than that it’s just more passable Pablum from the current king of mediocre entertainment. Seriously, I feel like this is a monkey’s paw wish but I’m REALLY hoping we get that Sing sequel sometimes soon to hopefully break up the monotony from them. I mean… it couldn’t be THAT bad… right?