A review of 'The Grinch,' or a treatise on the inexorable march of Christmas
You can’t stop Christmas. The calendar will hit Dec. 25 whether we like it or not. It’s an inevitability. That’s why the Grinch’s quest to destroy the holiday is a hopeless attempt to cease the passage of time itself. You might as well try to stop the planet from spinning, and we all know nobody can do that except Superman.
I know. Dr. Seuss’ timeless classic book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” isn’t meant to be a portrait of existential futility. Pardon my digression. It’s primarily a funny, sincere and sentimental testament to the unflappable human spirit, and secondarily, an anti-materialist statement. Same goes for the beloved 1966 TV special, which added delightful music (you know -- “You’re a bad banana with a greasy black peeeeeeel”) to Seuss’ impish rhymes. The same does not go for Ron Howard’s grotesque live-action film version from 2000, which gussied up Jim Carrey in terrifying makeup, and makes the slimy writhing mass of Cthtulhu’s face worms drawing all eternity into its salival maw look as appetizing as Mom’s mashed potatoes.
The new film, simply titled “The Grinch,” does relative justice to the things we love about the original story. Will we need to make concessions to enjoy it? Of course. It’s from Illumination, the animation studio behind the wildly popular “Despicable Me”/“Minions” franchise, and “The Grinch” looks like it could exist in the same cinematic universe. It shares the same tonal verve, features a villain-as-protagonist story arc and is similarly amusing, although never quite uproarious. It also features Tyler the Creator endearingly hip-hopping the “greasy black peel” song, and casts Benedict Cumberbatch in the title voiceover role, which is fine, although there were times when I wished Alan Rickman was still alive to really do the character justice.
For the sake of filling a 90-minute run time, Seuss’ line drawings and simple metaphors are given the full multi-dimensional narrative and visual treatment. That’s a pretentious way of saying the Grinch is given some backstory, and we see a lot more about how the cheery neighboring burg of Whoville functions.
To be concise, the Grinch is a lonely former orphan who grew up hating Christmas because he had nobody to share the joy with; now, his only friend is his loyal dog Max, who has an alfalfa-sprout haircut and puts a frowny face in his owner’s latte foam every morning. Imagine that -- the Grinch drinks lattes now. I think the Jim Carrey Grinch drank shots of chunky garbage water, although I once used a knitting needle to lance the portion of my brain storing the memory of that film, so my recollection is fuzzy.
Whoville is the type of place where the mayor (voiced by Angela Lansbury!) makes a Very Serious Decree that Christmas must be three times bigger than ever before. It may come as no surprise that the Grinch and Whoville are at odds ideologically, which presents the film’s primary conflict. The Grinch ventures to town for groceries, and, in one of the movie’s funnier scenes, is chased by voracious carolers. Local resident Mr. Bricklebaum, whose home light arrangement is positively Griswoldian, is unflappably friendly to the Grinch, who bristles like a cat being rubbed the wrong way with a weedwhacker. The Whos set up an enormous Christmas tree, and the Grinch lines up his catapult. Or maybe it’s a trebuchet? I always get them confused.
Anyway, things come to a head, as they must. The plot becomes the inevitable collision of two equally ridiculous schemes. Cindy-Lou Who (Cameron Seely), the sweet heroine we recall from the original, is a spritely optimist whose only Christmas wish is for her mom -- single, a third-shifter, also raising rambunctious twins -- to not work so hard and so long. Yes, aww. So she and her friends Ozzy, Axl and Izzy (Lemmy and Ronnie James must have been busy licking a Candy Cane the size of the Chrysler Building) plan to be the first humans in history to confront Santa on Christmas Eve.
Of course, as we all know, the Grinch dresses up like Santa in order to plunder all the lights and trees and gifts from Whoville. What, I wondered, would happen if he ran into the actual Santa? Perhaps curiously, despite his all-night scurrilous thievery, it doesn’t happen. The film doesn’t take a stand on the eternal debate about the existence of the jolly old elf, and sticks to the heist plot. What’s the implication here? Am I treading dangerous ground?
Nevertheless, “The Grinch” is an amusing 90-minute holiday diversion, with bright and colorful animation -- sugar plums for the eyes, you might say -- and enough reasonably gentle comedy to amuse the pre- and grade-school set. The fear that an update of a classic will desecrate Seuss’ vision isn’t realized, which is cause enough to recommend it, if not wholeheartedly, at least three-quarters heartedly. It at least serves as a reminder that Christmas is coming on its draconian dragon wings, unstoppable as death itself, so we might as well embrace it.
MPAA rating: PG for brief rude humor
Voice cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Cameron Seely, Rashida Jones, Pharrell Williams
Directors: Yarrow Cheney, Scott Mosier
Run time: 90 minutes