It’s family fun but with a muddied message.
The Grinch is up there with Ebenezer Scrooge. An all-timer of a Christmas heel. He stole the holiday simply because he hated the noise. That’s it. His heart was two sizes too small. End of story. There’s a simple lesson to be learned from Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas when that’s all there is to it, but as Illumination’s The Grinch proves it’s a lesson that gets muddier the more you try to explain it.
Entire generations have grown up with the story so the film doesn’t have too many surprises. The Grinch lives alone and angry in a Whoville-adjacent cave while the Whos that live in the town below are loving and merry each and every Christmas. For 53 years The Grinch sat in his cave hating it until finally deciding to literally steal Christmas from The Whos. In the end, moved by the Whos’ persistent Christmas spirit even after his holiday heist, the Grinch has a change of heart and returns the gifts.
When the Grinch is as one-dimensionally grumpy as the Whos are one-dimensionally loving, it’s easy to catch the moral of Dr. Seuss’ original book. But the wrinkle added to this Benedict Cumberbatch-voiced Grinch makes buying it a little tougher.
It needs to be said though, the movie is a lot of fun. The cast, Kenan Thompson in particular, make all the jokes land, while Illumination’s signature blend of physical comedy and and Rube Goldberg-style gadgets and gizmos gives the world around the Grinch an update that’s mostly in keeping with Dr. Seuss’ visual flare. My 4-year-old had a blast and it was hard not to have one too just sitting next to her.
Of course, to flesh out a 30-page children’s book to a feature-length movie, Illumination’s film adds layers to the characters to both add screen time and update the 1957 original. Cindy Lou Who, for example, is the oldest daughter of a hard-working single mom; all she wants for Christmas is for her to be happy, which is VERY 2018. In years past, Cindy Lou Who would’ve been wishing for a dad as if that’s the only thing a single mom could really want.
The attempt to make the film’s main character more understandable is way less charming and in fact, a little problematic. In addition to a Despicable Me-style upgrade in the tech department, The Grinch gets a surprisingly tragic backstory. Young Cumber-Grinch was abandoned, a forgotten child whose exile as an adult is no longer self-imposed. Yes, like the book, his heart is too small, and his shoes may be too tight, but there’s a reason for it in this version that’s not his fault. As a result the simple, elegant lesson about kindness and warmth in the holiday season gets trickier.
Instead of The Grinch being angry at other people’s joy during a holiday he sees as hollow and annoying, he’s bitter about being left out of it in the first place. There’s still a lesson being taught to the Grinch here, but the onus is completely on Cumber-Grinch to just kind of get over it. There are a handful of moments in the film where the Grinch isn’t a mean one at all, showing the kind of empathy he’s meant to learn by the end of the movie. His dog, Max, is by the Grinch’s side throughout the entire movie. In spite of Grinch’s gruff demeanour, it’s obvious Max cares about him and vice versa. As we all know, there’s not much better endorsement of character than a cartoon dog.
Ultimately the Cumber-Grinch is not all that bad of a guy and thanks to his new backstory, even when you wouldn’t want to touch him with a thirty-nine and a half-foot pole you can at least understand why he’s acting that way. Humanizing him also robs the character of the simple, sneering, pink-eyed villainy that made him one of the greatest Christmas cads in history. But, when I asked my 4-year-old what she thought about the Grinch, she replied “he was funny when he stole presents because he was green.” So, you know, Illumination did something right.