As wholly unnecessary remakes / reboots / re-imaginings go, Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch lands squarely in the inoffensive column, and it even offers a few moments that are quite a bit better than that.
I do not want to go too far out of my way to praise a movie that I have no plans to actively seek out ever again, but, from a degree-of-difficulty perspective, this is no small feat.
The Grinch is the eighth film from Illumination Studios - the same people that brought you a bunch of films, like Minions, that no one over age 12 likes. Trusting Illumination with one of the defining Christmas classics feels a bit like leaving the care of a house plant to my toddler, but much to my surprise, it basically works out.
The main thing directors Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier got right is that they steered as far clear as could reasonably be expected from the 1966 Boris Karloff-narrated TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, a staple of holiday viewing for millions of Americans every year.
Benedict Cumberbatch voices the titular character, and though he’s probably capable of aping the one-of-a-kind Karloff, it is clear immediately that this is not Karloff’s Grinch. There is, of course, an unneeded backstory to the Grinch’s, ahem, Grinchy-ness - in this version, he is an orphan who suffered through some especially scarring holiday seasons growing up. It generates cheap sympathy that helps to put daylight between Cumberbatch and Karloff for sure.
But the more general tonal differences between Cumberbatch and Karloff - the ones not necessarily rooted in that backstory - are worth lingering on for a second. Cumberbatch is a much more wry and sarcastic version of the Grinch. There is much less menace to him. There is an ever-present soft spot for his dog Max and for a new character, an obese reindeer named Fred, that softens the Grinch ever so slightly without robbing from the impact of his transformation at the end.
The overall look of the film is, of course, very different as well. The 1966 TV special we all love is so distinct stylistically - flat and two-dimensional like the Dr. Seuss book, and also possessing sharp dark lines that lend to the harshness of Karloff’s Grinch. Computer animation opens up a world of possibility, but also plenty of potential pitfalls. Technically speaking, the visuals are handled brilliantly - those pitfalls are by and large avoided.
There is more dimensionality, of course, but there is also quite a bit more fuzz and texture - traits that work just as well in a Seussian vision. Whoville feels like a more fully realized town - one that is Christmas mad in a different but no less convincing way. The Grinch’s cave, meanwhile, seems more cavernous and remote and cold. It seems like the kind of place where someone would scheme against the too-cheery Whos.
It is not a better world than the one imagined in 1966, but it isn’t demonstrably worse and it is very much in line with the Dr. Seuss books we all know and love. Most importantly, like the Grinch himself, this film seems to at least have its own distinct visual personality, rather than riding the coattails of its beloved predecessor completely.
Whether all of that that makes this iteration of The Grinch worth your time is up for philosophical discussion. If time is short and you feel overwhelmed by your viewing options every Christmas, well then I can’t recommend this film. Why spend 90 minutes watching something that was done better in 30 minutes half a century ago? Why miss out on Boris Karloff’s perfect narration?
On the other hand, if you’re looking for family friendly fun at the movie theater, you could do a lot worse than Cumberbatch and Kenan Thompson and Rashida Jones breathing a bit of new life in to a December mainstay.
To use a metaphor from the season, this is more of a stocking stuffer than a Santa present. It’s filler, sure, but it’s hardly unpleasant.