The Grinch is a harmless, but charming, remake of the beloved television classic. The third attempt to tell a story that no one really thought needed to be retold. The original 1966 television special is so perfectly preserved in popular memory as being near perfection it bothers the brain as to why a remake is even necessary.
Thankfully, the latest version of The Grinch understands a very profound and delicate thing: how to tell a story for kids. Dr. Seuss stories succeed because they play with the boundless wonder of a child’s imagination, while also trusting in the simple but potent faith each child possess. In other words, The Grinch doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel so much as add some spokes.
The story is still the same as we remember it. The Grinch (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) lives atop the mountain overlooking Whoville. A giant green oval shaped creature with an expressive face he is as his name implies, not a happy being. Every year, around Christmas, the Whos down in Whoville begin their annual celebration of Christmas and it drives the Grinch mad because he was born with a heart two sizes too small. So he steals Christmas.
Like all characters, he eventually realizes the error of his ways; his heart grows three sizes, some say. Look, the original animated special was some twenty-six minutes with credits included. The Grinch is a scant eighty-six minutes, with credits. I mention this only to say, yes they added filling, but not necessarily padding. The directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney show a great faith in the Seuss original.
For instance, Cindy Lou Who (voiced by Cameron Seely) has a story all her own. As some of you may know, Cindy Lou Who is the little girl who catches the Grinch in the act of stealing her Christmas tree. In this, her story is simple and in fact, adds to Cindy Lou Who’s character and her relationship with the Grinch.
Cindy’s mother, Donna Lou Who (voiced by Rashida Jones) is a single working mother of three. Cindy wants to get in touch with Santa so she can wish for some happiness for her Mother. Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow have hammered the script into such a shape that we understand Donna isn’t unhappy. But Cindy sees her Mom struggling one morning and is sad she can’t do anything to help. Swerdlow and LeSieur lay the groundwork in a clever roundabout way.
As Cindy is trying to deliver a letter to Santa she runs into the Grinch, who is in town shopping for food. Being the Grinch he yells at her and comes dangerously close to doing something one of the most unforgivable things one could imagine: tell Cindy that Santa isn’t real. He doesn’t tell her, but he does imply. So when Grinch is disguised as Santa and he meets little Cindy once more, well let’s just say the Grinch was not the only person whose heart grew three times that day.
Mosier, Cheney, LeSieur, and Swerdlow allow The Grinch story as a whole to be visually expressive. From the Grinch’s sparse, cold, and granite home to the warm embracing circular geography of Whoville, the universe of the Grinch looks and makes sense. Well, sense enough. Blessed be the script never tries to overreach and explain logistical fallacies or complex municipal services. They simply allow Whoville and the Grinch to exist.
The animation by Illumination Studios is, far and away some of the best they’ve done. The studio’s movies such as Sing, Despicable Me, and Smallfoot have all been nice to look at but The Grinch has texture and depth that the other movies were lacking. It’s one thing to look good, but it’s another to understand camera placement and cleverly figuring out comedic gags that don’t feel forced.
Cumberbatch Grinch is impressive for its lack of vanity. You could argue that Cumberbatch has been working towards his role his entire career considering all his characters tend to be akin to either the Grinch or Oscar the Grouch. His voice work is so complete I had to remind myself who was doing the voice. Notice the timber of his voice as he realizes Fred, the reindeer, who he’s captured to help pull his sleigh, has a family.
Keean Thompson has a small role as the jolliest Who in Whoville, Mr. Bricklebaum. Thompson walks a fine line between playing him as naive without mocking him or making him a fool. Thompson’s Bricklebaum is a man so in love with life and Christmas that he can’t understand how anybody could be so happy. His faith in people is such that he somehow believes the Grinch and he are the bestest of friends. A fact that the Grinch is as baffled by as we are.
Pharrell Williams takes place of Boris Karloff and Anthony Hopkins as the narrator. His laid back smooth voice anchors The Grinch. He handles the Seussian rhyming scheme with aplomb and even gives his own remix of the classic You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch. A perfect fit, Williams narrates without treading on the words. Being a musician he treats the words as Seuss intended; music to the ears.
There’s not a lot to say about The Grinch. It’s a simple straightforward and charming children’s movie which never panders. For being the third attempt at telling this story, it is remarkably free of any cynicism. The humor is both sly and broad and the emotions are genuine. After sitting through the cynical tripe of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, The Grinch feels like a soothing balm. It’s not Christmas yet, but at least with The Grinch, I didn’t mind celebrating a little early.