The 1966 TV special of How the Grinch Stole Christmas has become a timeless holiday classic enjoyed by generations as much as the children’s book that inspired it. The 2000 movie version of the same title which stars Jim Carrey in the title role… has not. Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch, the new animated feature film from the studio behind the Despicable Me films won’t become the definitive version of the story, but it certainly comes closer than the previous big screen outing.
With the Dr. Seuss book dating back to 1957, it seems unlikely you’re not familiar with the basic plot, but in short, the Grinch (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) lives outside of the fantastical town of Whoville. In every way that the Whos are happy, smiling and pleasant people, the Grinch is angry, vicious and just plain mean. His disposition means he hates Christmas more than any other time of year, especially because the Whos love it so much. When Whoville tries to outdo themselves in Christmas spectacle, the Grinch decides he has to become the anti-Santa Claus and steal everything the represents Christmas in order to ruin it for the town.
That’s the main plot and story of the book, which can be read to a child in barely more than a few minutes. To pad out the runtime of a feature film, Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch contains a B-plot that sees Cindy Lou Who (the only other named character in the book, voiced by Cameron Seely) work out a plot to trap Santa Claus on Christmas Eve night. Her motives are entirely pure. Cindy Lou’s mother Donna Lou (Rashida Jones) is an overworked, but unfaltering single mother, and Cindy Lou wants to be sure she has a Merry Christmas, which will require a face-to-face with Santa himself.
Beyond the additional material, the movie basically plays fairly close to both the book and the TV special that everybody loves. Pharrell Williams acts as the narrator. The voiceover is a combination of Seuss’ poetry and original material created for the film. The new stuff fits well with the classic lines, though if you have the book essentially memorized, then the lines that get changed to fit the new plot will likely hit your ear slightly off. (Reindeer, as it turns out, aren’t that scarce in Whoville after all. Capturing one becomes a key element of this version.) Williams’ performance is much more laid back and he’s no Boris Karloff, but then again, who is?
In addition to the narration, The Grinch takes its musical cues from the TV special. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” makes an early appearance, and while I wasn’t a particular fan of this cover, your mileage may vary. Danny Elfman handles the score, which also contains some melodies you’ll remember if you grew up with the Grinch on TV.
So much of The Grinch wants to remind you of the most popular version of the story and it succeeds. Unfortunately, in doing so it only ends up reminding you that what you’re seeing has been done better before in a much shorter runtime. The closer the movie stays to the book, the more you just sort of wish you were reading it.
What ends up elevating Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch then is, somewhat surprisingly, the new material. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Grinch isn’t quite the same character as the one from the book. He’s got a backstory that gives some indication of how he became the curmudgeon that he is, which changes the character significantly. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance makes you truly empathize with the Grinch, which makes the payoff at the end hit you square in the feels, regardless of the fact that we all saw it coming. Cindy Lou’s quest to make her mom happy is so ridiculously sweet, you might want to check for cavities after the film, but this is a Christmas movie and they get to get away with such emotional manipulation.
The other major highlight of The Grinch is the visuals. The animation is bright, colorful and full of life. Whoville is a wonder to behold. The various gadgets the Grinch uses to clean out the houses of all things Christmas are creative and fun, with a somewhat modern twist being put on the sort of wild inventions we might expect Dr. Seuss himself to draw.
Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch may not be the best version of this story ever told, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a warm and fun story that has enough warmth and charm to be exactly what many families will be looking for during the holiday season.