As anyone who’s seen any of the Cars movies can attest, it’s a bad thing when a seemingly minor realistic detail consumes your entire focus when watching a children’s movie set in a fantastical land. In the case of Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney’s The Grinch, the third adaptation of the Christmas classic in the some 60 years since Theodor Geisel put pen to paper, it came at a moment when the titular character, played here by Benedict Cumberbatch, is being pursued by an aggressive group of carolers as he makes his way through Whoville.
The thought of stealing Christmas hasn’t even crossed his mind yet, and still, the film offers up a brushstroke so baffling — normally not an issue for the detail-oriented Minion-makers at Illumination Entertainment — it distracts away from the next 80 minutes of film. The carolers are singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Later on, a family sings “Silent Night” as the Grinch spies on them while he’s doing preparations for stealing Christmas. And the entire movie, universe and all, unraveled for me. Does this mean that the Whos exist on Earth? Did somebody tell them about Jesus? Or was there a Who Jesus, crucified in a Seussian manner by fuzzy cartoon Romans for daring to preach his gospel? This is, again, not the thing you want to be thinking about during a light and fluffy animated film, and it’s an indicator of just how badly executed this iteration of the classic story is.
It doesn’t bring too much new to the table, either, though it still strains to hit that 90-minute runtime. Mosier (Kevin Smith’s longtime producer and podcast co-host) and Cheney (an animation vet) attempt to moderate between the two prior cinematic versions of the Seuss tale — the 1966 television special, directed by Looney Tunes master Chuck Jones, that remains the best adaptation of the book to this day, and the 2000 live-action film, directed by Ron Howard, that is, perhaps, one of the most colossally odd studio-produced family movies of this generation — and they come up lacking every step of the way. They want the ease and simplicity of the former, but stuff it so full of bullshit that the story, even as sparse as it already is, feels about 75 minutes too long, but they don’t want to be too Seussian, which is why they replace all of the artist’s designs with their own in-house facsimiles (the whos either all look like the Grinch, but colored differently, or they look like Cabbage Patch Dolls).
They want the bizarre psychodrama of the Howard story to assist in that effort, which sought to explain exactly why the Grinch would want to steal Christmas in the first place (hint: it was childhood trauma). That impulse — to spell out exactly what makes an iconic character tick — has felled plenty of revisionist adaptations, and it’s done particularly half-heartedly here, with none of the odd Freudian scarring that at least made the live-action film, if nothing else, audacious.
Howard also didn’t have any trouble having his other characters grow and change along with the Grinch, which is sort of necessary if you’re going to have any B-plots about characters who weren’t present in the original 69-page story. The Whos down in Whoville, at the very least, were portrayed as a bunch of materialistic and cruel dicks, so that they could earn the righteousness that awaited them at the finale through their collective anguish at having an entire holiday snatched out from underneath them by a walking collection of pool-table felt. Here? They’re so intensely good, so intrinsically sweet and kind, that there’s no growth to be had, and if anything, it garners even more sympathy for the Grinch and his laments as it progresses. The most annoying of the Whos is little Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), our co-protagonist, who wants to meet Santa in order to ask him to help her mom (Rashida Jones), a night shift-working nurse with three extra mouths to feet, relax. She is the embodiment of wholesomeness and pluck, and the film utterly grinds to a half whenever she’s the focus of attention. This type of arc was more palatable in the Howard version, which at least had her struggle for her beliefs against a frustrated and indifferent community, but it’s just so plainly presented by Mosier and Cheney, without a shred of wit or fun, that it’s hard to watch.
Cumberbatch fares better than every other member of the ensemble, though your milage may vary depending on how much you can stand his stereotypically nasal Brit-doing-an-American accent (he and Hugh Laurie must have had the same dialogue coach), but he’s never really given a chance to be, well, Grinch-y. It is amongst the most mild portrayals of this character ever put to film; his looks are softened by the Illumination house style; his primary motivations are quickly explained away; his jerkiest actions are always tainted with the guilt that he knows he’s done something wrong. He’s not an asshole to his dog, Max, who is nothing more than his faithful servant (and a refugee from The Secret Life of Pets’ character designers), and even his attempt to kidnap an adorable fat reindeer away from his flock — which accompanies the film’s best one liner — is polite and kind in comparison.
It’s almost as if Mosier and Cheney know if they lean in to the character’s awfulness even as much as Jones did, they’ll alienate that one audience member, and then the movie might only make $499 million dollars instead of the half-billion that they promised the suits at Comcast, and they just can’t have that, now can they? But that, as well, takes away most of the story’s fun, which is that we’re all secretly rooting for the Grinch, given a moment by this narrative to be the tiny frustrated curmudgeons that we really are in the depths of the Holiday season. It indulges us that so that we might learn along with the character and become better, as well. This Grinch can’t even accomplish that minor task, and it’ll fade away a few weeks after it hits theaters.
But really, what’s up with Who Jesus? Why introduce this chaotic element into the universe, Illumination? Why do this to me?