What the world didn’t need – and quite possibly, didn’t want – was another adaptation of Dr. Seuss 1957 stone-cold, illustrated classic, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” After all, we already had the perfect expansion of Dr. Seuss’ story more than 50 years ago, a 26-minute TV special directed by Chuck Jones and narrated by horror icon Boris Karloff. But as we’ve learned over and over again, where there’s IP (intellectual property), there’s a major studio eager to bring another adaptation (remake, reboot, reimagining) to the big screen and separate nostalgic parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, from their bank and debit cards. And with the Illumination Entertainment, the fine people who brought the Minions to vivid, if annoying, life in the Despicable Me series and their own spin-off, a class act like Dr. Seuss and the Grinch seemed like a no-brain, surefire excuse to print (digital) money. Unfortunately, the aggressively mediocre, ultimately forgettable results match the obvious lack of ambition on the part of Illumination’s executive board.
The Grinch (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) we meet in Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch is a kindler, gentler Grinch. He’s still a curmudgeon, prone to fits of ill-temper and childish pranks like knocking over snowmen or moving items out of reach at a grocery store from an overly cheerful patron in the perpetually merry town of Whoville. Even this Grinch, alone and lonely in his mountainside retreat has to eat and getting supplies means entering Whoville days before Christmas, the Grinch’s least favorite day of the year. The Grinch’s encounters with the denizens of Whoville, including the munchkin-like Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), puts him in an even fouler mood. He hates Christmas with every beat of his two-sizes-too-small heart, but he gains a new lease on what he calls a life when the semi-diabolical plan to steal everything, presents, trees, and ornaments, on Christmas Eve, crosses his perpetually furrowed, fuzzy green brow.
But with 80-90 minutes of running time to fill, co-directors Yarrow Cheney (The Secret Life of Pets) and Scott Mosier, working with a budget the fraction of a Pixar or DreamWorks Animation film and an undercooked screenplay credited to Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow, are forced to do the unimaginable (except they imagined it): They give the Grinch an unnecessary, unnecessarily cloying backstory. An orphan (insert tears here) apparently left with a vast, Bruce Wayne-like estate, but no friends or even servants to call Alfred or Aunt Harriet, the Grinch suffered the slings and arrows of neighborly neglect and learned to hate the residents of Whoville. Alone, the Grinch’s backstory barely adds 15-20 minutes, leaving Yarrow, Mosier, and their screenwriting team with no other choice apparently than to expand Cindy Lou’s backstory too. Cindy Lou isn’t an orphan, but she’s halfway there. Her single, overworked mom, Donna (Rashida Jones), works at night and parents all day. The most compassionate, unselfish child in Whoville (i.e., Cindy Lou) wants nothing more than to see her mother chill and relax (no Netflix or its equivalent, alas in Whoville).
The Grinch and Cindy Lou’s parallel stories converge in a familiar place: Cindy Lou’s home, the last home the Grinch robs before he retreats to his mountain retreat. They meet, she thinks he’s Santa Claus, he flees with an overstuffed sled, etc. The expanded, bloated storyline doesn’t affect the movie’s life lessons/messages (e.g., pro-community anti-consumerism, embracing and tolerating difference), but it’s a slog to get there. Yarrow and Mosier seem to know as much since they cram Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch with periodic set pieces, a sled ride here, a snow chase here, all the while building to the Grinch’s one-night robbery spree (augmented by the Grinch’s surprisingly clever inventions). The Grinch’s long-suffering companion-dog, Max (he’d receive a 13/10 from @WeRateDogs on @Twitter without qualification or reservation), gets two temporary companions of his own, a literally screaming goat and oversized reindeer. Neither lasts long enough to make any kind of impression, but the bright, eye-popping color schemes, Whoville’s multi-layered, angle-adverse buildings, and the character designs do. Yarrow and Mosier add one or two bits of cleverness to the Grinch’s well-known affinity to go pant-less, while layering in a joke or three about the Grinch’s advanced age (he’s 53) and his vain desire to look like he’s two decades younger.