The Grinch in a Cinch Do Not Give an Inch
By Jordan Bosch
Hollywood really seems to hate Dr. Seuss.
Beginning with the first live-action adaptation of one of his classic stories, the 2000 Ron Howard directed Jim Carrey mess How the Grinch Stole Christmas?, Hollywood has consistently demonstrated a fundamental inability to respect Dr. Seuss and give his stories even a half-decent film treatment.
Chuck Jones proved fifty-two years ago how the animation format was the best way to translate Seuss’ stories, but even in that format, versions of Horton Hears a Who and The Lorax have been dreadful.
And now that same studio Illumination is delivering their take on The Grinch, one that like the Ron Howard movie before it, seems unaware of the irony of excessively promoting a story about how Christmas means more than material things while merchandising the hell out of that story.
But even putting its obnoxious marketing aside, The Grinch is one of the worst movies I’ve sat through this year.
Its’ mostly book-accurate visual aesthetic and retention of the “Welcome Christmas” song from the ‘66 film are really the only good things that can be said about this movie. Everything else is an abysmal failure.
We all know the story: “Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch, who lived just North of Whoville, did not.” And so he plots to steal Christmas by dressing up as Santa and taking all the towns’ presents and ornaments on Christmas Eve. But it doesn’t turn out as he expected. To pad out the runtime this version, like the last, adds a few pointless subplots and banal comedy routines.
There are numerous reasons this is a terrible movie, but let’s start with the title character. In the movies’ most baffling choice, Illumination cast Benedict Cumberbatch, who has a perfect voice for the part, but instead made him do a strange nasally American accent. However it does match their interpretation of the Grinch.
This movie suffers a lot of the same problems as the 2000 version and chief among them is the portrayal of the Grinch as not so much mean and malicious, as just a lonely curmudgeon with a penchant for immaturity. The goal in this appears to be to make him more relatable, but the Grinch’s loathsome nature is his defining attribute and is crucial to the ultimate effect of the story.
Where many stories do require sympathetic protagonists and visible growth, How the Grinch Stole Christmas? is an exception. It works because the character change is spontaneous -because it’s a realization rather than a gradual self-examination, illustrating how even the most hateful of souls have it in them to be moved by pure warmth of spirit. In this movie, not only is he no longer the outcast, making regular visits into Whoville, and is actually kind to his dog Max, but he’s given an asinine tragic backstory to explain a hatred that’s unbelievably unnecessary. The movie also plays into that internet nonsense about the Grinch not actually hating Christmas, just being antisocial. It all detracts from the inspirational impact of his change of heart, and even forgetting the original story, it doesn’t make him interesting in the least.
One of the subplots involves the Grinch tracking down and finding a reindeer and the brief adoption of a particularly large one into his plan. Another revolves around Cindy Lou Who (the only other named character from the book) organizing her own plan with her friends to trap Santa so she can tell him her Christmas wish. And it’s as virtuous as it is brazenly meaningless and contrived, involving concerns about her mother (Rashida Jones) that barely register.
More than this though, the kids in the movie appear to be written by people who’ve never met a kid and think this is how they behave. They’re the most generic, pandering examples of what Hollywood believes children relate to, and sometimes feel twenty years out of date.
The same could be said for this movies’ humour which tends easy and juvenile much too often. Oh, and once again repeating a mistake from 2000 film, arguably the most important moment is botched by showing the Whos reacting to the “stolen Christmas” with despair before being reminded of what’s really important. It’s vital to the story’s emotional core that the Whos simply don’t care one iota about material things, and that the very first thing the Grinch witnesses when morning comes is their joyful singing. But of course this a wholly manipulative movie and doesn’t hide it well. Every emotion is false.
Where The Grinch insults Dr. Seuss more directly is in the way it distorts his writing. The narration, provided by Pharrell Williams, is way too frequent; but more unfortunate is that some of the most famous and most important verses are missing to be replaced by new and often very poor ones -which is tantamount to sacrilege. Additionally, while mindful enough to leave “Welcome Christmas” alone, the movie remixes “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”, and it’s pretty horrible.
The Grinch is now the second variation to completely miss the point of Dr. Seuss’ Christmas classic. On its own it’s not a movie saying anything about Christmas really, just reinforcing some half-hearted morals found in a slew of better kids’ movies without any tenable convictions behind them, shoved in between dreary attempts at comedy and efforts to make the Grinch look cool on his Christmas raid.
What’s so angering about it though is that does have (at least part of) the How the Grinch Stole Christmas? name, easily the greatest Christmas story for children. And there were a lot of children at the theatre when I saw this and it’s depressing to think it may be their first introduction to this story.
For that, The Grinch is utterly rotten and I sincerely hope it’s the last we see of Dr. Seuss on the big screen.
Jordan Bosch is a former Moose Jaw Times Herald columnist