By Liam Lacey
How does The Grinch steal Christmas this time? The new feature-length version of the 1957 Dr. Seuss book looks bright and moves fast, the alpine village of Whoville is straight from a sparkly Christmas card and the whole thing is carefully animated to a hair tip. But with only a mildly dastardly villain and a surfeit of Minions-like anarchy and sidekick characters, the movie buzzes by without leaving an emotional trace.
This new film is directed by Scott Mosier (best known as Kevin Smith’s producing partner) and Yarrow Cheney (who co-directed The Secret Life of Pets) under the production of Illumination Entertainment’s Chris Meledandri, of the Despicable Me franchise. Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow’s screenplay is about action more than emotional beats, backgrounding the original story’s mordant humour and empathetic message in favour of an amped-up caper plot. Think of it as Ocean’s 25.
The Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) has a touch of Sherlock Holmes genius-eccentric; he lives in a book-lined cave mansion with his cute dog-servant Max, spends his time playing his pipe organ and building elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions. He’s less a monster than an anti-social personality type, though he’s a sucker for big-eyed animals (Max and an ox named Fred, who substitutes for a reindeer).
At the root of this sometimes-sadistic outbursts (smashing a kid’s snowman) is a mundane childhood trauma. After being abandoned on Christmas in his orphanage, the Grinch has become Xmas-phobic. The syrupy echoing up from the people down in the valley in the town Whoville, the shopping crowds, the amputated trees, the whole horror of it. He tries to avoid his barrel-chested Christmas-addicted neighbor, Bricklebaum (Keenan Thompson). It drives him crazy when the town’s mayor (Angela Lansbury) insists Christmas must be “three times” bigger than last year. Who can blame him? You may recall that in the book, the Grinch’s epiphany is that “Christmas doesn’t come from a store.” In the movie, it apparently comes from a familiar grocery business called “Who Foods.”
If, so far, you’re solidly in the Team Grinch camp, the pot-bellied green one takes it a step too far when he hatches an elaborate plan to destroy everyone else’s noxious fun by disguising himself as a Santa Claus and stealing all the toys and decorations during Christmas Eve. Meanwhile, his Whoville nemesis — an irrepressibly positive little girl named Cindy Lou (Cameron Seely) — is preparing a plot of her own. The tyke is so desperate to help her overworked mother (Rashida Jones), she plans to trap Santa and get him to, somehow, help her mom out.
Soon we have competing plots, contraptions, disguises, mousetrap and much climbing, scrambling, falling and flying. It’s kind of exhausting until it is encrusted in carmelized sugar, though I’ll be darned if I can figure out how Cindy Lou’s mom’s life is any better at the film’s conclusion. Except for the textural visuals, little here rises above the level of mediocre. Pharrell Williams’s light tenor rhyming narration, for example, is just tolerable; Tyler the Creator’s over-produced version of the signature song, “You’re a Mean One” replete with strings and a children’s chorus, is a complete flub, muffling the original’s wonderful lyrics.
Of course, Christmas movies have a baseline function: to keep kids warm, indoors and comfortably stimulated. And on those levels, The Grinch serves its purposes and will undoubtedly rake it in at the box office. Even the off-putting Jim Carrey vehicle, How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 2000, was a blockbuster. Perhaps it’s best to treat The Grinch as a gateway experience to more serious pleasures: A few days after the screening, please check out the incomparable 26-minute Chuck Jones-directed TV special from 1966, where kids can understand what the Grinch is actually about.
The Grinch. Directed by Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney. Written by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow, based on the book by Theodor Seuss Geisel. Featuring the voices of Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Cameron Seely, Kenan Thompson, Angela Lansbury, and Pharrell Williams. Opens wide November 9.