It is clear from the start of the new, animated feature length “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch,” that the audience is going to get some wonderfully bright, detailed, engaging animation. What is less clear is if the movie will work as a whole, if it will recapture the magic of Dr. Seuss’ book and the classic television special (mileage will vary on the Jim Carrey live action adaptation).
In fact, the first half of the Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney directed Illumination film is rather dull. The screenplay by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow leaves it significantly in doubt whether the entire endeavor is more than a simple holiday cash grab. This is, of course, rather ironic as the point of the story is that Christmas is about more than the crass consumerism often associated with the holiday. It is about family and community and a celebration of something greater than material objects.
Eventually though, The Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the movie, get down to business. Eventually we get to The Grinch deciding that the Whoville celebration is all too much and that he must stop Christmas from coming. This is when the whole thing comes alive and brings joy to the audience.
As a book and a movie, “The Grinch” may have a moral, but it is, at its core, a heist, and the heist presented here is blissful. The Grinch, and for that matter Cindy-Lou Who (Cameron Seely), seem to have their very own Q Branch (Who branch?) in Whoville, and the movie offers the most wonderful cross between Seuss and Acme inventions one could hope to see.
The Grinch, of course, is using the Who Branch devices to steal the Christmas paraphernalia from houses, but Cindy-Lou Who is working on a scheme to capture Santa himself. Her goal is to ask the jolly one for help for her mother, Donna Who (Rashida Jones), an overworked, overtired, single mother of three. It is a heartfelt notion and one that plays well into the larger story, and one from which The Grinch learns.
It is not, however, terribly deep or nuanced. Cindy-Lou Who’s story runs on a separate track from The Grinch’s, and although those paths do cross before Christmas Eve, they only do so in a way that feels forced. As with The Grinch though, once she gets down to the actual entrapment of Santa Claus, her story picks up.
Perhaps all of this indicates that while “The Grinch” is not a long film, but it is still longer than it ought to be. This is not to say that there aren’t good to the additions made taking this from book to screen, but too many of them don’t work.
The standout of all the changes is, undoubtedly, the improved relationship between The Grinch and his long-suffering dog, Max. The movie offers a much more symbiotic view of the two individuals. Max may still do a lot of menial tasks for The Grinch, but it is so very clear that The Grinch loves the dog and, more than that, respects him. Max gets to eat at the table with The Grinch and, when the Grinch catches a reindeer to pull the sleigh, he also makes sure that Max ends up with his own seat for the ride.
It is joyous to watch these two together, even in the film’s early goings. It offers the audience a far more rounded Grinch, a more humane Grinch, a Grinch who could be convinced that perhaps Christmas means more.
As for that reindeer The Grinch catches, Fred, he is the best new character the movie has to offer. Cindy-Lou may have a batch of friends that help her, and Kenan Thompson voices Bricklebaum, an overly cheerful neighbor, but Fred is not only adorable, but offers more insight into The Grinch than we would otherwise get, further deepening the character at the film’s center.
Pharrell Williams is the movie’s narrator and does a fine job with the original and expanded dialogue offered here. That dialogue often has Dr. Seuss’s sort of whimsy, but every once in a while falls a little flat, avoiding a rhyme that seems right, or going slightly out of its way. Angela Lansbury also lends her voice to the mayor of Whoville, but it is, sadly, only a cameo for the legendary actress.
The music is a mix of great Christmas tunes and features Tyler, The Creator doing an updated version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” (he also sings a new song for the film). This version has its moments, but like the film itself, feels overdone at points. Also like the film, it still succeeds more often than not.
Whatever its shortcomings, once things get going for “The Grinch,” the movie soars. It is sure to put a smile on the face of those in the audience and leave them with the Christmas spirit. Especially if people arrive 20 or 30 minutes late.
photo credit: Universal Studios