I was eleven years old when the first feature length adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” hit theaters in 2000. Since then that live action version has become the quintessential classic for my generation while those from older generations still hold tightly to the impact of the original television cartoon. Now the current generation of children will have their own adaptation of the famous Christmas story to embrace with “The Grinch”, a computer animated take of the tale of the titular grump and his war on Christmas. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know or enjoy the story of the Grinch in one form or another so this new take on the tale certainly had a lot to live up to. That begs the question, does this new animated version of “The Grinch” hold up and add something new to the legacy or is it a carbon copy retread worth skipping over? Well I’m late on making this post as it is so let’s get to it. This is my review of “The Grinch”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“The Grinch” offers a modern retelling of Dr. Seuss’ legendary holiday story “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” this time in computer animation. The titular Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) lives outside of the town of Whoville with Christmas season on the way. The Whos love the Christmas holiday and their festivities constantly annoy the Grinch who has chosen a life of isolation after childhood trauma led him to hate the holiday and Whoville. After Whoville decides to have its biggest Christmas ever the Grinch decides to steal the holiday teaming with his dog Max and a chubby reindeer named Fred to do the job. Meanwhile a young Who named Cindy Lou (Cameron Seely) hatches a plot to capture Santa on Christmas Eve in order to ask him for a special wish involving her hardworking single mother leading to the famous confrontation between Cindy and The Grinch.
“The Grinch” is not a bad film nor is it misguided like many Dr. Seuss adaptations. In many ways it’s actually very charming even for a story we’ve seen many times before. It does at least attempt to build on the original television special while also taking some notes from the live action version with callbacks and even a backstory for the Grinch himself which is reminiscent of the legacy set by the 2000 film. However, it’s the development of Cindy Lou Who, a character I felt was always either too perfect or underused in past versions of the story, that shines as a highlight of this latest version. Cindy wants to capture Santa Claus to thank him and ask him to help her mom, a single parent who works long night shifts to provide for the family. This version of Cindy Lou Who isn’t just a prim and perfect young girl. She has genuine personality and her motivations are timeless as it should inspire any child to see beyond the presents and decorations to appreciate the more important things in life. Her adventure is not just about appreciating Christmas it’s also about appreciating your family and the work they put in to providing for those they love. That is a nice core message to offer that gives “The Grinch” some much needed depth.
It also helps that newcomer Cameron Seely gives an absolutely adorable performance as Cindy Lou. In fact, the voice cast in general is spectacular even with a pretty bland and clearly child-friendly script. Benedict Cumberbatch is a perfect voice for The Grinch and I did find myself really enjoying this version of the character. He had his own personality and even some unique motivation compared to previous versions which did offer something new from a grump we’re all very familiar with by now. Rashinda Jones, Kenan Thompson and others make up the rest of the cast bringing to life a wide variety of colorful and memorable characters that both fit the Dr. Seuss vibe and personality while also feeling genuinely human and grounded in at least some kind of reality. All too often Dr. Seuss’ characters and worlds are overdone and while “The Grinch” doesn’t resolve all of the issues that have plagued adaptations of the legendary author’s properties this movie does at least feel like it understands Seuss’ whimsical style.
Speaking of which one of my favorite aspects of this movie was the animation and the visuals. It’s not the flashiest or even the most stylish Dr. Seuss adaptation but I very much enjoyed this version of Whoville. “The Grinch” tries to replicate the visual style of both the book and TV special that preceded it for a new generation to appreciate. The backdrops are polished and colorful and imaginative from the different shops to home interiors to the Grinch’s layer and even a really cool looking Christmas light maze that I really wish was an actual thing. The best part is unlike past Seuss movies this film doesn’t force-feed us the visuals. Not once did I feel like the film was saying “look at me, see how unique I look?”. For the first time I left a Dr. Seuss movie feeling like the animation and visual style wasn’t trying to prove anything. It just felt like a neat world worth experiencing that didn’t overpower the story or try to be more than it had to be to capture the imagination of Dr. Seuss’ vision.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Despite having quite a few redeemable aspects, in the end “The Grinch” just isn’t everything it needs to be. Yes this film adds to the story of “The Grinch” in order to fit a feature length run time but it does so in odd ways. There’s a lot of filler which was clearly designed to pander to the children in the audience using safe and cliché jokes and attempts at humor that were dated even before this movie came out. Now that doesn’t mean it’s not funny. Fred the reindeer for example serves as effective comic relief and the screaming goat that pops up from time to time its delightfully ridiculous, but screaming goats stopped being a fad years ago and Fred is a completely wasted new character that ends up being shoehorned into the movie with little purpose. Nothing he does couldn’t have been accomplished without him making Fred feel like something the filmmakers or even likely the studio threw into the mix for merchandise or forced added entertainment value. I mean Max is an adorable enough mascot did we need a second character you weren’t going to do anything with?
But that leads me into “The Grinch’s” biggest flaw in that the entire thing feels forcefully stretched out and unlike past adaptations it doesn’t extend the run time with properly developed social commentary. Even the Grinch’s backstory is summarized in a matter of minutes. The pacing suffers as a result and very worthy messages are lost in the shuffle as they’re simplified to their most basic forms seemingly out of distrust for the audience’s ability to properly appreciate these themes without being spoon fed. There’s just no complexity in this tale and even the parts we know are coming don’t really pop the way they should. I had fun with it but I didn’t find myself honestly touched by the final result the way I had hoped. I can’t say “The Grinch” didn’t have me entertained or bring the feels when I saw it, but I can say the emotional impact was watered down when I don’t feel like it ever had to be. The filmmakers should have trusted the audience and built on themes much more carefully instead of throwing in hijinks and side quests that don’t really ever go anywhere even if they bring a chuckle or two. The approach they took makes the experience feel hollow. There’s something here, the makings of a great interpretation, but the story lacks conviction.
It’s sad because this film does feel genuinely inspired to a point, but the writing and dialogue and forced child-friendly misadventures don’t do anywhere near enough to bring out the full potential of the story. There’s just not enough here and there was plenty of room to build on it to make it feel much more significant. This movie just plays it way too safe and while it gets a lot of things right it also gets a lot of things wrong. If this was the first time we saw “The Grinch” on the big screen I would probably think differently, but it’s not and maybe that’s why it feels like it’s missing that special touch. This is a holiday story that’s received so many interpretations new ones are bound to be the subject of heavy criticism by comparison alone and “The Grinch” certainly deserves that criticism because while it does take the story in some new directions and makes a fine effort at reinvigorating interest in one of Dr. Seuss’ best, and frankly most important, works it doesn’t take any real chances or risks to prove itself worthy of being a new timeless classic.
I’m mixed on “The Grinch”. Honestly, I’m glad I saw it. I went to see it with my mom because when I was a kid I remembered seeing the live action movie in theaters and it was such an awesome experience at eleven years old. Maybe some of my criticism of this new version stems from my familiarity with the Jim Carrey movie which could be supported by the fact that my mother actually enjoyed the film more because it reminded her of the television special that SHE grew up on. I guess that right there is the major defining factor of whether or not you’ll enjoy this movie. Sure, the pacing is off and the script and story doesn’t really add up to anything truly special, but there are at least some inspired elements worth checking out and the backdrops and character designs are great with vocal performances that are lively and fun. It has its flaws, but you know what, so did the first two versions of this story too. It’s a holiday classic that really does deserve to be told again and again and I’m sure this won’t be the last time it gets a theatrical treatment either. If you enjoyed the original TV special this movie only builds on that legacy even if it’s not perfect and if you grew up with the live action adaptation this film won’t replace it, but at least it reminded me personally why I enjoyed the story and why it remains a favorite Christmas tale I go back to every year. “The Grinch” might not do everything it needs to do, but it does what it has to and offers a new generation of youngsters and families a chance to bond over one of Seuss’ greatest works all over again with harmless entertainment and just enough charm to get by.