A third screen telling of Dr Seuss’ ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas’ was hardly atop many wish lists for the coming festive season but parents with hyper young tots should at least appreciate the distraction. Fiercely colourful, soft of heart and rather brilliantly animated, Illumination’s Grinch is ultimately forgettable fun and lacks the sharp edges warranted by its story. Put it this way, the Chuck Jones shorter take on the tale still tops the pile.
Taking structural cues from Ron Howard’s more recent adaptation – that brash version with Jim Carey in the title role – this Grinch swells Seuss’ picture-book novella to encompass backstory and subplots. Here, directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney explore their anti-hero’s loveless childhood and establish the inner hurt that have driven fifty-three years of hating Christmas. Unlike his predeceasing Grinches, the one played by Benedict Cumberbatch feels less like a bah humbug villain than a misunderstood loner. The film would’ve been a lot shorter had Angela Lansbury cameoed as a shrink, instead of the oddly youthful mayor she actually plays.
It is when Lansbury’s Mayor McGerkle announces that the coming Christmas will be three times bigger than ever before – a device to parallel the Grinch’s iconic heart, which is three times too small – that the pear-shaped, green grump decides enough is enough. Or, as a playful, narrating Pharrell Williams chimes ‘he got an idea, the Grinch got a wonderful, awful idea’ His is a scheme all too familiar for adults who grew up with the book and television special but newcomers to the story may still take delight from the whizz-bang verve of the Grinch’s Christmas-stealing antics. As Illumination, the studio behind Despicable Me, play it, the Grinch is quite the inventor. Wallace and Gromit would be proud of his contraptions, if not his coffee.
Alongside the main plot is an expanded role for young Whoville resident Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely). Saddened by the thought that her overworked mother Donna (a wasted Rashida Jones) is unable to enjoy Christmas – because she’s too busy making her children happy – Cindy Lou decides to ask Santa for help. She too hatches a plan, albeit with less selfish intentions. That this is a strand of the film that fails to go anywhere, however, is indicative of her real impetus being unchanged from the original book. For all the will of its producers, The Grinch really does have nothing new to add to the Seuss legacy and presents more as opportunistic than creatively driven.
Indeed, a deficit of ingenuity and daring pervades Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow’s script, with even the humour lacking lustre. True, there’s sausage-based slapstick, a cute dog and comedy reindeer but parents will see the turning cogs that less cynical target audience members are likely to forgive. This is a film aimed squarely at under-eights and rounds off all edges accordingly. A neat early skit, involving a particularly persistent choir, does well to capture the chaos of seasonal shopping but whilst the Grinch responds with relatable horror, it’s hard not to wish he was a bit meaner. Cumberbatch has infectious fun voicing his character’s snide side-swipes and the film would have benefited many more of them. At least you can buy a cuddly toy Grinch for Christmas though, right?
Perhaps the only unquestionable success of the film is its French-crafted animation. Making swift ground on Pixar, Illumination deliver remarkable hair, snow and sunlight throughout and yet never at the expense of their trademark visuals. It is too easy nowadays to overlook quality animation but the hearty Minions-raised budget of The Grinch pays dividends. The day they match their artistic prowess with smarter, funnier and more heartfelt scripting will be a game changer in family animation.