Adapting Dr. Seuss works into feature films is a process that does not have a great track record, to put it mildly. The live-action Grinch and Cat in the Hat movies were abominations, The Lorax missed the darker underpinnings of the story it was adapting and Horton Hears A Who! was the one exception here, being a reasonably charming fare, probably one of the better Blue Sky Studios movies and definitely the best Dr. Seuss film adaptation. The Grinch (this time fully animated compared to the live-action 2000 Ron Howard directorial effort) is the newest film to try and tackle this daunting task and the result is something that’s just inoffensive enough to probably rank in the upper pantheon of both Dr. Seuss movies and Illumination Entertainment films, though neither of those are high bars to clear.
One big issue with adapting Dr. Seuss books into feature-length films is padding these stories out to an extended length of time, a 64-page book just doesn’t have enough meat on the bones for a full-on motion picture. For the second film adaptation of The Grinch, the main way of padding out the story is lingering on how that o’l Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is just so lonely, the characters main personality trait here is that spending Christmas alone as a childhood traumatized him to the point that he now spends his life alone far away from the Who’s down in Who-Ville whose immense Christmas celebrations particularly irk him.
I’m reviewing this film well into its domestic theatrical release, so I’m sure the topic’s already been covered more insightfully elsewhere (I’ve already seen a pretty succinct Tumblr post on the matter) but making the Grinch less of an aggressively mean person and simply a morose fella who distances himself from other people so they don’t hurt him is a puzzling choice, mostly because they go in such a different direction with the Grinch as a character while still trying to keep (SPOILER ALERT!!!) the traditional “his heart grew three sizes that day” ending. Such a moment just doesn’t have as much of an impact now that the Grinch hasn’t really acted like his heart was all that small to begin with. If they were gonna go in such a radically different approach with the character, they should have gone all the way with it.
Other new additions to the Grinch story have varying degrees of success. A portly reindeer character named Fred that the Grinch briefly adopts is a hoot, the characters design is adorable and they get a lot of fun dialogue-free comedy out of him. Tyler the Creator’s two songs for the soundtrack, which include a new take on You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch, are also delightful. Meanwhile, an extended subplot about Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) and her group of generic friends trying to capture Santa Claus is thoroughly forgettable stuff. It just feels like a convoluted bit of storytelling designed to offer an explanation for why Cindy Lou Who is awake when the Grinch is stealing her Christmas tree.
This disposable subplot is one of the weakest aspects of a movie that, like too many of Illumination’s recent efforts, often settles for just being average and nothing more. This level of quality extends to the voice acting, which is rounded out by people either hired for the purpose of corporate synergy (like Kenan Thompson or Pharrell Williams) or actors who don’t get their talents properly utilized. The latter classification is where Benedict Cumberbatch belongs as the actor has all of the personality and pizzazz drained from his voice as he does a vague American accent for the Grinch that makes the supposed curmudgeon sound like Bored Bill Hader more often than not. I’m sure the idea of Benedict Cumberbatch as The Grinch made Universal marketing executives drool with anticipation but the actual execution of that casting leaves a lot to be desired.
At least the animation in The Grinch is nice looking, particularly in the buildings that all look like they could have come straight out of one of the illustrations in a Dr. Seuss book. The Grinch certainly has the look of Dr. Seuss down pat but the rest of the movie seems to be constantly struggling with whether it wants to follow in the footsteps of the original text or go in a different direction. Never brave enough to go down either creative path, it settles instead for just being run-of-the-mill adequate family fare. Credit where credit is due though, at least The Grinch tries to end on a note sincerely emphasizing the importance of kindness, a noble intent that ensures that this movie is considerably better than the one time a Dr. Seuss film adaptation decided to have Mike Myers as The Cat in the Hat admonish a “dirty ho”.