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He's a Mean One

Benedict Cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch
Universal Pictures
 85 Minutes
Directed by: Scott Mosier, Yarrow Cheney
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones   
The Grinch

For a beloved author with many classic children’s books to his credit, Dr. Seuss (real name, Theodor Geisel) has been somewhat ill-served by the movies and television. In the half century or more since the good doctor wrote many of his books, there have only been a handful of projects based on his works, a couple of which were truly dreadful, and only one that has become an unquestioned gem, the Chuck Jones 1967 TV special, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. But the enduring popularity of the Grinch and his story remains a beacon for film producers looking for a way to create another holiday classic or at least something that will pass as one for a couple of years. To that end, we now have a full-length animated version of the tale, with a title shortened to The Grinch. The story doesn’t have all the charm of the Jones version (not the least of which was the marvelous narration by Boris Karloff), but it does manage some genuine third-reel Christmas spirit.


For those who have been living a hermetic existence of their own since the original book came out in 1957, The Grinch is the story of a crabby green creature (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), with a heart two sizes too small, who, with his only companion, his faithful dog Max, lives high atop Mount Crumpit, overlooking the town of Whoville. The residents of Whoville are an unusually cheerful lot, especially around Christmas time, and their jolly disposition causes the Grinch no end of consternation. He tries to avoid the Whos during the holiday season, but when he runs out of food due to a bad case of emotional binge eating, he is forced to venture into Whoville less than a week before Christmas. There, he pulls a variety of mean-spirited pranks on the Whos, which cheer him up a bit until the jolliest Who of all, Bricklebaum (Keenan Thompson), informs the Grinch that the mayor of Whoville (Angela Lansbury) wants this year’s Christmas tree lighting to be the biggest event ever.


The Grinch returns to his mountain abode to sulk and brood and eventually comes up with his master plan. He will dress as Santa Claus and visit each home in Whoville on Christmas Eve and steal all their Christmas presents and decorations, dumping them off a cliff. He expects that this theft will destroy the Whos’ Christmas spirit entirely. But as the Grinch makes his way through Whoville in his sleigh, powered by a game Max disguised as a reindeer, the Grinch runs afoul of another Christmas Eve schemer, young Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seeley). Cindy Lou has a personal wish for Santa, not for the usual loot for herself, but to get help for her mother Donna (Rashida Jones), a struggling single parent. Naturally, the last stop on the Grinch’s Whoville tour is Cindy Lou’s house, where faux-Santa and little girl come face to face.


The book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, was just a couple of hundred lines of Seuss’s witty poetry accompanied by the author’s own illustrations. That enabled Chuck Jones to add a couple of songs (including the now-famous “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”) and some animated action, and the result fitted neatly into a 30-minute time slot. There was no reason given in the book or TV show for the Grinch being so mean; he just was, much as there was no reason behind Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam’s villainy in other Jones productions. But this new version of The Grinch comes from the creative minds at Illumination, and the character winds up being a green furry version of Despicable Me’s Gru, right down to his very own Minion, Max.


The screenplay of The Grinch gives him an appropriate backstory (hint: an unhappy childhood at the orphanage) and takes care to let the audience know that he’s not a totally bad guy after all (he clearly loves and cares for Max, a major change from earlier versions of the story). Even the tricks he plays on the Whos are more childish pranks than anything truly malicious (of course, excessively warped villainy wouldn’t be in keeping with the movie’s theme). Not that anyone might have entertained doubts about how the story would turn out, but this kinder, gentler Grinch is more of a mere grouch, and his eventual redemption is telegraphed from almost the very first scene of the film.


I’m in a bit of a holiday mood myself, so making the Grinch into merely a lonely curmudgeon isn’t a deal breaker, especially when the movie has so many other things going for it. Of course, Boris Karloff is long gone, but Pharrell Williams serves as a more-than-adequate replacement. His narration relishes the punditry and wordplay in the script that of necessity expands Dr. Seuss’s original poetry but captures the same rhythm and spirit. Surprisingly and disappointingly, Benedict Cumberbatch voices the role of the Grinch in a flat Midwestern accent instead of his own commanding native British accent that is suitably worthy of a grand movie villain.


The Grinch also has a lot of great physical humor, a shout-out of sorts to the spirit of Chuck Jones and another of his great animated villains, Wile E. Coyote. Like the hapless Coyote, the Grinch concocts some overly elaborate schemes during the movie that backfire on him badly, leading to some typical hilarious Jonesian reactions by the Grinch. Directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney capture the right playful spirit in those scenes.


However, when The Grinch strays too far from its title character, it’s not nearly as effective. The Whos may have fit in perfectly with the times in the 1950s or 60s, but they wind up being far too sickly sweet for most people’s tastes today. In the most significant change of all, Cindy Lou Who isn’t just an innocent infant anymore, she’s as much of a planner and schemer as the Grinch is, only without any of the green monster’s wit. While I would have loved seeing more of the Grinch’s pratfalls (and plenty more of the film’s unsung hero, Max), there was just too much Cindy Lou and her at times annoying pals that help her with her plans.


For all their focus on evildoers, Illumination movies have heart to them, and The Grinch is a perfect addition to their resume. The film is bright and colorful, with an intricate production design and a lot of good visual gags (the Grinch concocts some gadgets that would have made Rube Goldberg envious). It’s a bit heavy-handed in its messaging occasionally, but the addition of more material featuring the Grinch, including his encounters with an oversized ox of a reindeer named Fred, more than makes up for those flaws. The Grinch isn’t a great Christmas movie, but, like those cookies left for Santa Claus, it’s a sweet family treat.

In this clip, the Grinch plans his strategy for stealing Christmas.

Read other reviews of The Grinch: 

The Grinch (2018) on IMDb