Christmas is fast approaching in the town of Whoville and the populous are making ready for the festive celebrations. There is, however, a self-exiled individual named The Grinch [Cumberbatch] who lives in a perpetual state of moodiness in Mount Crumpet with his faithful dog, Max. The Grinch despises everything to do with Christmas but must descend into the town when he learns that his cupboards are bare. Angered and upset by his experience, the Grinch decides the only way to allay his frustrations is to remove Christmas entirely and thus he sets in motion a plan to steal Christmas in one night. Simultaneously, one young girl, Cindy LouWho [Seely] is desperate to tell Santa Claus her wish face-to-face, so starts a plan to ensnare Santa on Christmas night.
So, to start this review, we need to talk about Ron Howard. In 2000, Howard extended the 26 minute 1966 original cartoon adaptation to a 105 minute live action release starring Jim Carrey and it was.. fine. I personally enjoyed it for the production design, the costume and make-up work and the fleshing out of the Grinch and Cindy characters, giving the whole thing a surprising amount of heart and charm. What I didn’t appreciate, however, is how vital this kind of lead would be as this 2018 adaptation is twenty minutes shorter and somehow lacks the creative depth and wonder of an 18 year old film as well as the simple moralistic efficiency of a 52 year old cartoon. No matter how hard you try, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons and subsequently this film feels like a cheap imitation that confirms the irrelevance of its own existence. Having said that, the general absence of toilet humour was a genuinely welcome and fresh surprise.
With a lot of these animated releases there is an overriding reliance on star power to sell the feature, leading to a weird medley of mismatched actors in small or supporting roles. The Grinch is a bit of an oddity in that it doesn’t have this. In the central role we have Benedict Cumberbatch, who I initially thought was a terrible casting choice but in all fairness, he does a perfectly commendable job; putting on a distinct voice that holds throughout, he brings the character to life pleasingly but the script and lack of character interaction (outside of one-way conversations with his dog) absolutely fails him. And this feels like it could have been avoided as the townsfolk know about the Grinch, one particular character, Bricklebaum (voiced by Kenan Thompson), interacts with him regularly enough to consider him his best friend. But despite all this, the supporting roles are pretty much non-existent. The bulk of the time away from the Grinch’s narrative is spent with Cindy LouWho and her Whovian friends. Much like Cumberbatch, I could see them being obnoxiously written and painfully delivered but everyone involved provides completely serviceable performances but in truth that could be because they weren’t really on screen long enough to really outstay their welcome. The unusual thing is Cindy’s motivation. This version is given a bit more of an active, adventurous outlook and the drive for her arc is sweet enough (sacrificing her Christmas presents to wish her mother happiness) but it’s also a bit flat owing to the fact that Cindy’s mother is simply depicted as busy and the Grinch eventually sympathising with her selflessness loses a bit of the magic. I mean, it shouldn’t, the intention is noble enough, it has just been done better in a different version. But I imagine Illumination are hoping that audiences won’t have seen said version.
Putting comparisons to previous iterations and character traits aside, it’s genuinely difficult not to be cynical with a film like this. While there isn’t much in the way of actual character work, there are plenty of characters present, especially the inclusion of an overweight reindeer named Fred. I hate Fred. I would have saved this throwaway comment for my “highlighted character” section below but it spiralled too quickly, so needed to be included in the bulk of the review. Fred is introduced with a joke that receives only two call-backs but as it wasn’t especially funny, it felt like two too many. So after a screaming goat (that’s the joke by the way) scares away all the reindeer, the Grinch is left with little choice but to rope an extremely obese, dopey-looking reindeer into his service. Now, I can’t fault the film for this inclusion too much, I know it’s to pad the runtime out and release a broader range of appealing toys but that’s kind of synonymous with animated kids films, so I’m hardly surprised. What did surprise me is how little it’s actually utilised. Shortly after being introduced, it is revealed that Fred the fat reindeer has a fucking family and then fucks off before being used as a last minute ex machina. On top of that, the character performs the same role as Max and any attempt to do anything with him, from a rival for Max or a part of the Christmas heist, is ultimately abandoned. Then we have the lack of written content in the form of chase/runner sequences, of which I counted no less than five. I’m all for an exciting, fast-paced visual sequences but when you are employing frantic tracking chases through any location which adds nothing to the story, it quickly becomes apparent that it is little more than lazy filler. Need to pad out a solid five minutes for a character to get from A to B? We’ve got the answer. No real dialogue, heavy emphasis on slapstick and schadenfreude, just fling some money at the animation studio and tell them to go wild. But these runner sequences did genuinely highlight something I wanted to shine a positive light on. During the film, I noted that the score is big and rather Danny Elfman-esque before getting to the end credits and learning that it was in fact Elfman. Suddenly a work of mimicry to be praised devolved into a phoned-in weak offering. It could be fair to say this is a double standard based on preconceptions and prejudices but like most things when it comes to reviews, it is more an appraisal of the moment and what came before; specifically that Elfman’s work on A Nightmare Before Christmas is frankly iconic and this feels like a thoroughly watered down variant.
In truth, The Grinch is a passable adaptation of a short children’s book from the 1950s and is animated, acted and directed with enough competence to justify the release. The problem is, it offers nothing new. Why does the Grinch hate Christmas? He’s just lonely and grew up in an orphanage. Why is Cindy LouWho nice to the Grinch? Because she’s a good person. There’s honestly nothing wrong with these answers but like repeated adaptations of Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes or Robin Hood, sometimes you need to explain what you’re bringing to the table and the only thing I can see here is “we can sell a bunch of toys.”
9th November 2018
The Scene To Look Out For:
As stated, this film has very few named supporting roles. One that stood out for me was Kenan Thompson’s Bricklebaum. I will openly admit, I can’t actually justify why I enjoyed this character. He loves Christmas and genuinely seems to like the Grinch but he’s also a bit of a naïve simpleton. But none of that really matters because I really like Kenan Thompson and his jolly delivery was a gratifying treat.
I have two scenes to highlight; one in the film and one not. Starting with the latter, this feature opens with a short about a pair of Minions and acts as a follow-up to Despicable Me 3. It’s a soulless commercial bait-and-switch and is solely there for the associative nature like a hype-man or introduction from a bigger artist. It doesn’t help that the short itself was incredibly dull. Secondly, at the beginning of the film proper, which shows the Grinch wondering around the town, sneering at the Christmas celebrations. It all seems fairly grouchy until he is hunted and pursued by a gang of carol singers in a surprisingly traumatising and vindictive sequence that generates sympathy for the Grinch’s plight – but that’s probably because, deep down, everyone hates carol singers.
“Have you ever seen a picture of Santa with a flashlight?”
In A Few Words:
“For all its good intentions, The Grinch lacks any real creativity in its execution, giving us a fairly flat rerun”