Benedict Cumberbatch lends his supple voice to this warmly rendered CG-animated take on the holiday classic.
Much closer in spirit to the beloved book and the evergreen 1966 TV special than the soulless lump of coal that was the 2000 Ron Howard-Jim Carrey collaboration, Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch is a vibrant, amusing CG animated feature that gives the big mean, green guy a kinder, gentler makeover.
While the film’s message of spreading love and kindness is unmistakably keyed to our politically turbulent era, the root cause of the Grinch’s unpleasantness, originally thought to have been related to his having a heart two sizes too small, has now received a complete psychological work-up revealing an emotionally scarred childhood.
The resulting infusion of empathy makes for a Mr. Grinch that’s less of a mean one than a miserable one — think more Daffy Duck than Ebenezer Scrooge — but what the production may have lost in a “nasty-wasty skunk” of an antagonist, it gains in an inspired voice cast (led by Benedict Cumberbatch) and a dazzlingly merry and bright visual palette.
Marking the third Seuss adaptation by Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment after 2008’s Horton Hears a Who! and 2012’s The Lorax, the Universal release should generate plenty of family-friendly, pre-holiday cheer when it opens this weekend.
Although it’s hard to forget Boris Karloff’s authoritative narration, Pharrell Williams, whose song “Happy” earned Illumination’s Despicable Me 2 an Oscar nomination, lends the storytelling an appropriately soulful vibe as he relays the Grinch’s dastardly plan for the Whos’ holidays. There’s a telltale wistfulness along with his sneering disapproval as Mr. Grinch (Cumberbatch), accompanied by his faithful canine companion, Max, peers down from his Mt. Crumpet perch on the ambitious Christmas preparations going on below.
Meanwhile, back in Whoville, a spirited, aged-up Cindy-Lou Who (Cameron Seely) is hatching a little scheme of her own, involving trapping Santa in her living room so she can personally ask him for help for her overworked single mom (Rashida Jones). Should that plotline not ring a bell, it’s because it is one of the fresh elements necessary to bring the 69-page book and the 26-minute small-screen editions of How the Grinch Stole Christmas up to feature-length status.
Fortunately those additions, as well as a few new characters — notably a scene-stealing plus-size reindeer named Fred initially commandeered by the Grinch to pull his present-stealing sleigh — don’t feel out of place in the Seussian universe expanded by screenwriters Michael LeSieur (Keeping Up With the Joneses) and Tommy Swerdlow (Cool Runnings).
Likewise, the visual energy provided by directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney (who co-directed The Secret Life of Pets) injects a little Minions mayhem mixed with classic Chuck Jones physical comedy.
Called upon to give the Grinch those extra layers of character complexity, Cumberbatch handily delivers the empathetic goods, while Kenan Thompson lends an infectious ebullience to the new character of Bricklebaum, his Christmas-crazed nearest neighbor. I only wish there had been a little more Angela Lansbury, whose role as the Mayor of Whoville amounts to just a few very short scenes.
The production’s biggest upgrade is Whoville itself, which has been transformed into a luminous, twinkling spectacle of a mini-metropolis, complete with its own Who Foods Market and a meticulous attention to detail that extends to the tiniest of Christmas tree decorations and most innocuous of snowflakes.
If that, along with Danny Elfman’s fanciful score and Tyler the Creator’s spin on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” fail to do the trick in these spiritually trying times, then maybe the green dude’s not the one whose heart is full of unwashed socks.
Production company: Illumination Entertainment
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson, Cameron Seely, Angela Lansbury, Pharrell Williams
Directors: Scott Mosier, Yarrow Cheney
Screenwriters: Michael LeSieur, Tommy Swerdlow
Producers: Chris Meledandri, Janet Healy
Executive producers: Latifa Ouaou, Audrey Geisel, Chris Renaud
Editor: Chris Cartagena
Music: Danny Elfman
Rated PG, 86 minutes