SPOILER WARNING – THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE 2018 ANIMATED FEATURE THE GRINCH
I LOVE Christmas.
In a more general sense, I LOVE the holiday season, which is inclusive of anything folks celebrate during the last couple of months of the year. There’s an undeniable excitement about days off of work, fellowship, lights, gifts, the joyful hustle and bustle of stores, weather getting cooler, and the impending hopefulness of a fresh, new year.
Some of you read that paragraph and thought, “Yeah, it’s awesome!”
Some of you read it and thought, “What a tool. Everything is terrible and there’s no joy to be had in this world” and probably some variation on “darkest timeline”.
The Grinch could possibly satisfy both mindsets.
The works of Dr. Seuss are probably about as sacred as any pop culture property could be. At this point most adults – certainly in America – grew up with the authors’ fanciful worlds. Even my parents – in their early 70s – were pre-teens when How the Grinch Stole Christmas was released in 1957.
Out of all of his books, that one is the most important to me.
I’ve never specifically spoken with her about it, but looking back I can recognize that my mom must have loved the story. We watched the cartoon every year, I owned several versions of the book, and I had several Grinch stuffed animals growing up, including a grey one that had an angry face on one side and a happy face on the other that scared the heck out of me.
Note – it was specifically based on the book’s art, where the Grinch was rendered in black and white with no green whatsoever.
I love the 1966 animated special, obviously. Chuck Jones’ animation is gorgeous and Boris Karloff’s narration (and voicing of the Grinch) is perfection. Throw Thurl Ravenscroft’s performance of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” on top of that and you have a singular moment in pop culture and animation history.
Nothing will ever be as legendary as that Christmas special, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still fun to be had with Mr. Grinch. Phantom, Jr. and I have been excited about this one ever since seeing the first trailer months ago – not just because it looked fun and had a screaming goat, but because it was going to usher in the holidays season – and we saw it opening day. Did it deliver holiday delight or was it just another shallow Hollywood cash-in? Read on and find out!
1 – Strange Grinch – We saw Benedict Cumberbatch’s humor as Dr. Strange, but that was sort of standard-issue Marvel snark. Here we get to see that he can be genuinely, unrelentingly hilarious.
In this adaptation our Grinch is a bit less sour. He still hates Christmas and resents the residents of Whoville, but the movie is careful to show that he does love his best friend and canine companion, Max. This important emotional touchstone gives the audience license to laugh at just how misanthropic and awful the Grinch is towards everyone else. But the important thing is that the filmmakers never overdo it. They give the audience just enough grinchin’ for laughs and to get a good sense of the character, but they don’t belabor his initial terribleness.
A Lot of care was put into making the character bitterly funny, but not off-putting. As most comedians will tell you, one of the hardest bits to maintain is that of the crank – the acerbic wit who is in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. It’s an exhausting character for the audience to deal with if not handled well.
Smart writing and Cumberbatch’s charm keep the Grinch firmly in the protagonist’s seat.
2 – A Grinch’s Best Friend – Max might have been our favorite part of the movie. He’s one of the most expressive animated canines I’ve seen, and he is given a huge amount of agency. He loves Mr. Grinch, but it’s clear that there are times he’s tolerating his behavior. Most of the biggest laughs come from Max’s interactions with the Grinch.
3 – A Wonder to Behold – The movie is gorgeous.
Every second of the 86 minute runtime is packed with holiday joy. Whoville is one of those settings that make you wish you could crawl in the screen and live there. Even the Grinch’s cave feels magical and wondrous, with sprawling, cavernous rooms and mad, Seuss-ical inventions.
There are many different grades of animation these days. Pixar is widely regarded as the best of the best, but Illumination – the company responsible for Despicable Me, The Secret Life of Pets and this film – is a strong contender. This world is imbued with detail and character in a way that truly bring it to life. Nothing feels flat or stagnant. Every frame of animation gives the sense that massive amounts of care went into crafting a living, breathing world with a unique personality.
4 – The Kids Are Alright – Cindy Lou Who is an integral part of the Grinch narrative and is also usually extremely annoying.
Not so in Illumination’s adaptation. Voiced by newcomer Cameron Seely, she’s one of this new breed of movie children who can be precocious without making you want to throw them out a window.
In this version, Cindy Lou wants to meet Santa so that she can ask him to help make her hard-working single mother – voiced by Rashida Jones – happy. It’s a sweet story point that could have seemed heavy-handed but didn’t.
Cindy Lou’s little group of friends are equally charming, and create a narrative connection to Whoville that is necessary for a feature-length version of the story.
5 – The Jolliest Who of All – Kenan Thompson voices new character Bricklebaum, who is the antithesis of Mr. Grinch – all joy and hope and innocence. His home is on the outskirts of Whoville and most proximal to the Grinch’s cave. When we meet Bricklebaum he is absolutely smothering his home in Christmas joy – lights, inflatables, reindeer, everything – much to the chagrin of our would-be protagonist.
Hilariously, Bricklebaum is convinced that he and the Grinch are best friends.
Thompson delivers this character’s dialogue with a sweet earnestness that keeps him from being a complete rube. While he is completely unaware of his supposed friend’s contempt for him and his Christmas lifestyle, you don’t once feel bad for him – he’s just too darn joyful.
6 – “Who Asked for This?” – Ah, the rallying cry of the bitter cynic. The response to the announcement of almost any movie that isn’t an original idea (not that there is such a thing) from an independent filmmaker working out of a basement.
This version of the Grinch’s story promised to investigate the source of his grinchiness, and it does. Very quickly and efficiently. It’s not complicated and is the simplest possible explanation you could have come up with, which is great because The Grinch is still, at its core, a parable and parables need to be simple and easily comprehended.
Grinch’s backstory – that he is an orphan and left out of Christmas as a child – is a necessary part of a slightly more relatable and sympathetic character. While it’s delightful to see the inexplicably evil Grinches of the past have their revelatory moments, this one has a different quality because in addition to this backstory we have seen fleeting moments of self-awareness from our bitter green friend.
While his aggressive acts are still hilarious, there’s a tinge of melancholy beneath every one because we know that the Grinch knows there’s something wrong with him. It makes his eventual redemption all the more powerful.
So no – maybe nobody asked for this. But the respectful updating and enhancing of a classic story are what make it worthwhile.
7 – Restraint – There are many, many hilarious gags in The Grinch, but none of them are overused.
That screaming goat from the trailer? That could have gotten old really quickly. But the gimmick is used sparingly and with precise timing. Most of the comedy in the movie is basic stuff – sight gags, pratfalls, one-liners; this is, after all, a family movie – but it’s all delivered with precision and sharp timing.
8 – Grinchventions – While every iteration of the Grinch has been an inventor of some kind, this one is the Batman of the bunch. The sequence of the Grinch actually stealing Christmas is a visual delight, with a multitude of impossible contraptions defying the laws of physics in the most delightful ways.
The Grinch’s signature implements of plunder are illuminated candy canes that sprout more mechanical devices than Inspector Gadget. It’s delightful watching him deviously employ the various functions of these things. I feel like there was a huge missed opportunity to license these out and make toys of them. Phantom, Jr. and I both want one.
9 – How is This Not a Toy Line?!? – Speaking of missed opportunities, with every animated feature that hits theaters receiving a toy line, no matter how low profile or terrible they might be, how did The Grinch get left out, especially with the might of proven entity Illumination behind it?
This is seriously one of the most toyetic movies of the year. Never mind the obvious multiple versions of the Grinch – Standard Grinch, Underwear Grinch, Scarf Grinch, Santa Grinch – so many of the movie’s designs are begging for toys. Even micro playsets of Whoville would be great.
So far, though, all I’ve seen are a few plushes, most of which are exclusive to AMC theaters (and weren’t even in yet when we were there).
Oh, and Pops. Because of course.
10 – Unreliable Narrator – Pharrell Williams is the narrator and while his delivery has moments of joy that you can’t help but feel, for the most part his voiceover work is uneven and forced, almost like listening to a jock read in class. It’s not terrible and doesn’t by any means ruin the movie, but I think there were better choices out there.
Note – yes, I know “listening to a jock read in class” is a cruel generalization, but you all knew exactly what I was talking about. To you well-read and educated jocks out there, I apologize (that means I’m sorry).
11 – The Sounds of the Season – Modern animated features tend to overuse pop music. I’ve seen films that were almost wall-to-wall intolerable Top 40 drivel.
Not only is this annoying because current pop music is terrible, but it also dates these films terribly. I’m not talking about original pop music composed for the films, I’m talking about just inserting existing pop dreck into the films.
Fortunately, while The Grinch makes use of a few pre-existing songs they all have context within the scenes. The remainder of the music is original composition or updates that, despite being very non-traditional, are quite good and made me want to buy the soundtrack. I’m not familiar with Tyler, The Creator, but his contributions to the soundtrack – an update of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and a new song called “I Am the Grinch” – are fun.
As for the score, a few scenes into the movie I thought, “Man, this person is ripping off Danny Elfman hard”. A few scenes later I thought, “Man, they’re really good at ripping off Danny Elfman, so I guess it’s okay”.
Then, during the end credits, I saw that it actually was Danny Elfman. I didn’t know beforehand that he had composed the score and for some reason during the movie it never occurred to me that it was actually him. I suppose it’s because in my brain he’s so inextricably tied to Disney and Tim Burton, despite his recent work on Justice League.
Anyway, I’m adding the score and the soundtrack to my Christmas playlist.
12 – ‘Tis the Season – In the end, The Grinch was an awesome way to kick off the holiday season.
We saw it in a packed theater with a very responsive crowd and felt fully Christmasized afterward. It will absolutely become part of our annual holiday rotation going forward.
I, for one, am ready for the inevitable Seussiverse series of shared universe movies. The Lorax didn’t show up after the credits to recruit the Grinch, but I suppose you gotta save something for Green Eggs and Ham.
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