In the opening lines of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the narrator states, “The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season! Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.” To be fair, Seuss didn’t need to dig much deeper to tell his 69-page holiday classic, or the subsequent iconic 1966 animated television special. Illumination Entertainment’s third and best Seuss adaptation – following their Horton Hears a Who! and The Lorax – The Grinch does a decent job of patting out the original story, but these additions are still inserted into a mostly middling animated film.
Benedict Cumberbatch voices the eponymous Grinch, the humbug who lives in the mountains on the outskirts of Whoville, constantly judging the town’s Christmas-loving citizens. After 53 years of hating Christmas, The Grinch decides to dress up as Santa Claus and steal the beloved presents and decorations from the people of Whoville and ruin their holiday once and for all.
That’s of course the story we’ve all heard for over half a century, but The Grinch decides to flesh out some of the character influences in ways that surprisingly work well. Screenwriters Michael LeSieur (You, Me and Dupree) and Tommy Swerdlow (Cool Runnings) give The Grinch a backstory, explaining his hatred of Christmas stemming from a bad Christmas spent at an orphanage. It’s not the holidays that The Grinch actually hates, it’s the loneliness that Christmas drudges up in his mind that brings him down this time of year.
In fact, The Grinch exclusively has single characters, who find joy with each other during the holidays. Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) wants to capture Santa, hoping to ask him if he could make her mother Donna (Rashida Jones) happy for Christmas. Even the scene stealing Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson) – known as the happiest Who – seems to be alone over the holidays. But it’s the unification that Christmas brings that makes all of these character’s happy.
The original TV special was directed by Chuck Jones and the animation style felt right in line with Jones’ other work. With this adaptation, the humor is clearly from the Illumination playbook, throwing in all sorts of zany physical humor, and since the film focuses primarily on The Grinch’s reconnaissance and planning for his big heist, lots of jokes rely on watered-down Wile E. Coyote-style antics. Most of the jokes feel like they’ve been picked from the recycling bin of other animated films, a shame considering the strength of the newly added elements.
Even worse, updating Grinch music with awkward, weak raps from Tyler, the Creator is a questionable choice that almost makes you wish the music hadn’t been included. While it’s hard to live up to the masterful Boris Karloff narration, Pharrell Williams does a decent job, and also apparently fulfilling his contractual obligation to appear in every Illumination film.
Directors Yarrow Cheney (co-director of The Secret Life of Pets) and Scott Mosier (long-time producer of Kevin Smith’s films) play by the Illumination playbook (occasional gross joke, scattered modern references, constant slow-motion screams), but The Grinch is far more vibrant and beautiful than the typical Illumination fare. Whoville is charming and gorgeous to look at, especially when its inhabitants are preparing for Christmas, and the snow and hair animations seem a step above from what Illumination has done in the past.
The Grinch might slip too much into the standard, rambunctious animated film pattern, but especially in the third act, when The Grinch turns around on Christmas, the film does find its heart. In its finale, The Grinch gets to a truly touching conclusion that rivals the original TV special, and that alone makes this adaptation worthwhile. It’s in these moments where the deepening of the original really pays off and this extra depth makes the end hit with an emotional punch. The journey to the final moments might drag and get obnoxious, but when The Grinch sticks its landing, only a Christmas cynic wouldn’t let the film make their heart grow three sizes bigger.