While researching the history of Christmas movies, I watched 22 different adaptations of “A Christmas Carol,” and even that felt like just scratching the surface. So if Ebenezer Scrooge can be subject to myriad interpretations — even when some fans are convinced that one version or other is the “definitive” one — why shouldn’t the Grinch?
That’s an easier argument to make now that we have “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” as an example of how to revisit the material, particularly since the 2000 live-action take was such a grim and overblown piece of Yule-sploitation. That version no doubt led many to dread this latest one, from “Minions”-makers Illumination Entertainment, but this new animated feature is bright, both in its color palette and in the wit and liveliness of the storytelling.
You know the tale: the curmudgeonly Grinch (now voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) lives high atop Mount Crumpet with his devoted dog Max, hating the Whos down below in Whoville, and especially loathing their annual celebration of Christmas. This year he decides he’s going to steal the holiday by dressing up as Santa Claus and pilfering all their presents and trees and wreaths and decorations. (Alas, this version gives us no Who-Cardio-Shnook, although there are plenty of other visual representations of Seussian doodads.)
Unlike many other movies that stretch and warp a lovely children’s book beyond recognition by dragging it into a three-act structure — looking at you, “The Polar Express” — this “Grinch” builds on the source material without distending it past the point of the original’s charm. We get a tiny bit of Grinch back-story (he grew up alone in a Dickensian orphanage, and Christmas cheer and singing feels to him like a personal affront), but the script by Michael LeSieur (“Glory Daze”) and Tommy Swerdlow (“Snow Dogs”) doesn’t dwell on his origin story the way the Ron Howard version does. (They also very skillfully write Seussian rhyming couplets for narrator Pharrell.)
The other additions to the Seuss tale — hyper-friendly, decoration-loving Who Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson); the reason why Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely, “The Greatest Showman”) desperately wants to meet Santa; even an actual reindeer who gets briefly drafted for sleigh-pulling service — all serve the plot and never feel like padding. And while this Grinch isn’t the complete misanthrope that Seuss created (and Boris Karloff cemented in the popular imagination), he’s still a mean one: a young Who who makes the mistake of building a snowman in the Grinch’s path sees his handiwork vandalized before getting a snowball in the face for good measure.
Cumberbatch isn’t trying to channel Karloff (or, thank goodness, Jim Carrey); his Grinch is snarly and embittered, but you see glimmers of kindness, even if they’re only directed occasionally at Max. That doesn’t make his eventual heart-grows-three-sizes redemption any less satisfying, though. He’s backed up by a talented voice ensemble that includes Rashida Jones and, in an all-too-brief cameo as the mayor of Whoville, Angela Lansbury.
Where “The Grinch” really shines, often literally, is in its presentation of Whoville itself. Directors Yarrow Cheney (“The Secret Life of Pets”) and Scott Mosier (Kevin Smith’s longtime producer) have created a lovely holiday bauble: the town is a glimmering pop-up croquembouche-cum-diorama festooned with lights and garlands and snow, and it’s a dream of a fantasy Christmas village. As characters sled through it (there’s lots of swooping going on here, no doubt to attract the 3D audience), it feels like visiting the inside of a magical snowglobe.
There are some missteps here, to be sure, having mostly to do with the music choices. Tyler, the Creator’s hip-hop-flavored take on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is bound to age badly, along with the film’s bag of adult-contemporary holiday chestnuts from the likes of Buster Poindexter and The Brian Setzer Orchestra. (Nat King Cole and Run DMC, however, fit nicely into this stocking.)
Purists may balk about revisiting this tale, but “The Grinch” earns its laughter and its sentiment, both of which are plentiful. It’s a full-throated Fah-Who-Foraze.