‘The Grinch’ Is a Lighter Take on a Christmas Classic

The Grinch” takes the classic Dr. Seuss tale of a Christmas-hating grump and turns it into a surprisingly mundane animated movie. There are beautiful images to behold, full of Christmas cheer, but the story chugs along with little wit or devilish glee. In a year that has seen some stellar animated features like “Incredibles 2,” this Grinch feels more like product placement.

We’re back in Whoville where everyone is in the holiday spirit. Amid the snow-covered lanes and mountain peaks, Christmas lights are going up as well as trees. Caroling puts a sweet sound to every passing ear, except that of the Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch). The hairy green grump detests everything that has to do with the holiday, preferring to stay secluded in his mountain home with his dog Max. Down below in Whoville Cindy Lou (Cameron Seely) is devising a plan to trap Santa Claus. Cindy wants to ask Santa to help her single mom, Donna (Rashida Jones), who must work and raise a family all alone. As Christmas gets closer, the Grinch hatches his own scheme. He will dress up as Santa, ride a sled into Whoville and ruin Christmas by literally stealing it.

Most readers making their way through this review know Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” has been adapted for the screen before. Nothing tops the 1966 animated version with the green party pooper voiced by Boris Karloff. In 2000 Jim Carrey, buried under impressive layers of makeup, played a quite miserable Grinch in Ron Howard’s live action take. This new “Grinch,” produced by Illumination, the company behind “Despicable Me” and “Sing,” works hard to revive the classic Dr. Seuss look while toning down the story into a softer offering. Now how do you go about “toning down” Dr. Seuss? First there’s the Grinch himself, who in this version is less mean, less bitter and more like one of those lonely guys who slams Valentine’s Day because deep down he wants a girlfriend. The opening scenes where he wanders through Whoville to get groceries are his best, as he gleefully knocks down a kid’s snowman, refuses to help a lady at the store grab a can in the top aisle and secretly mocks a jolly local, Mr. Brickelbaum (Kenan Thompson), for thinking they are friends. Inside his lair the Grinch spends his time playing a massive organ with towering pipes, tapping out “All By Myself.”

But once “The Grinch” goes into its main plot it becomes curiously timid. We never get the sense the Grinch is himself actually a, well, Grinch. Gone is the wit of Seuss’s original narration, instead we get a new text voiced by Pharrell Williams that rhymes like Seuss but feels more like a Nickelodeon special. It’s almost ironic that the new version of the classic “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” is a forgettable rap interpretation by the once infamous Tyler, the Creator. Flashbacks explain that the Grinch hates Christmas because as a kid he didn’t celebrate it with anyone in his cold, vast home (what happened to the parents is unclear). At least the Jim Carrey version had an anti-bullying message behind its origin story. His malicious grin is replaced by an abandoned stare close to being puppy eyes. When the rotund reindeer he finds to pull his sled walks off with his family, the Grinch simply slouches and tells Max, “alone again.” Such a soft-hearted loner is the villain who will rob Christmas?

One can argue that the film’s intentions are in the right place. It wants to focus on how lonely people who appear bitter on the outside have a history behind such feelings. But it never tries to deliver a truly enriching story. The stakes never feel too high because this Grinch doesn’t seem as if he needs that much of an effort to convert. Even the humor lacks punch. It is a family film after all, and younger audience members will chuckle at the Grinch inventing gadgets, but it lacks the genuine thrills or heart of something like “Coco” or “Incredibles 2.” Adults will surely have a laugh or two with Brickelbaum, who represents that kind of person who is a little too happy all the time.

There are a few other genuine laughs when it comes to the animated characters conjured here. There’s a small goat that delivers a strange, frantic scream whenever it jumps into frame. Cindy Lou is a cute creation, but little else. What succeeds the most in this film are the visuals. Whoville is a pleasant sight all around, with gorgeous corridors of Christmas lights at night and colors that sing that during the day. The surrounding mountainsides look like the ideal winter fantasy. Once the Grinch starts robbing everyone’s Christmas decorations and gifts, the sequences become hugely entertaining as Grinch’s sled gets piled high with loot. Kids and adults will both surely love Grinch’s dog Max, who works as his virtual butler, answering his master’s bell calls and capable of making coffee.

“The Grinch” succeeds in capturing Dr. Seuss’ world via digital animation, but as a holiday revival of a classic story it may succeed in inspiring viewers to seek the original 1966 version. Kids are smarter than they’re sometimes given credit for, and so they deserve a Grinch with a little more bite.

Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” opens Nov. 9 in theaters nationwide.