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Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Movie Review

Dr. Seuss' The Grinch (2018) movie poster Dr. Seuss' The Grinch

Theatrical Release: November 9, 2018 / Running Time: 86 Minutes / Rating: PG

Directors: Scott Mosier, Yarrow Cheney / Writers: Dr. Seuss (book How the Grinch Stole Christmas); Michael LeSieur, Tommy Swerdlow (screenplay)

Voice Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (The Grinch), Cameron Seely (Cindy-Lou Who), Rashida Jones (Donna Who), Pharrell Williams (Narrator), Tristan O'Hare (Groopert), Kenan Thompson (Mr. Bricklebaum), Sam Lavagnino (Ozzy), Ramone Hamilton (Axl), Angela Lansbury (Mayor McGerkle), Scarlett Estevez (Izzy), Michael Beattie (Store Clerk)


There's something about Seuss that draws Chris Meledandri in. As president of 20th Century Fox Animation, he supervised and executive produced Blue Sky's 2008 feature Horton Hears a Who!. Four years later, among his first finished projects as founder, owner, and CEO of Illumination Entertainment was The Lorax.
Now, he takes Illumination back to the well for The Grinch, giving us a new computer-animated feature of a children's story that has already been adapted into one of the most beloved holiday TV specials of all time and a blockbuster live-action movie that has gradually been embraced by the generation of kids who grew up with it.

A cynic or business person could point out that it's an awful lot easier to adapt a beloved Dr. Seuss book than to create an original universe from the ground up and that's true. All that Meledandri and company had to do was pick out a weekend in November to have this ready to release and they were guaranteed a large, built-in audience. Whether the reviews are pretty good like they have been for most of Illumination's efforts or slightly better or worse, the people were bound to pay to see this new Grinch, to witness some colorful splendor up on the big screen and experience that warm, fuzzy feeling that Christmas movies are known for.

Mission accomplished. Illumination's movies aren't for critics and they're not for the Academy, who have only nominated Despicable Me 2 for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song. No, they are for the masses, who spent over $3 billion worldwide to see Minions and the second and third Despicable movies alone on the big screen. For a studio who has never let a production budget creep higher than eight figures, that commercial impact is extraordinary. But it is the only extraordinary thing about Illumination's output to date.

The Grinch does nothing to change the company's track record. Here is a movie whose worst case scenario is probably a worldwide gross on the order of Sing's $632 million. The best case scenario is that it joins Minions, DM3, and only thirty-four other movies (five of them, animated) in the Billion Dollar Club.

Benedict Cumberbatch voices The Grinch in Illumination Entertainment's new computer animated adaptation of the classic Dr. Seuss tale.

You needn't have read Seuss' 1957 book, nor seen either the 1966 special or the 2000 Jim Carrey movie to know the story of the Grinch. Like Scrooge, his name is synonymous with holiday season misanthropy. The furry, green, nasty Grinch (voiced now by Benedict Cumberbatch) loathes Christmas. While the rest of Whoville celebrates the season, he keeps to himself, living the recluse life atop a mountain with his dog Max. Fed up with Whoville's spirit, which is at an all-time high following the mayor's proclamation to make this Christmas three times bigger than before, the Grinch decides to swoop in and take all of the town's decorations and presents on Christmas Eve.

Why is the Grinch this way? Well for one thing, his heart is two sizes too small. In addition, a backstory details his hatred for the holiday stems back to his days as a lonely orphan.

That's all there is narratively. The original '66 TV special ran just 26 minutes, long enough to fill a half-hour of air time on CBS with commercials as sparing as they were then. This new version, running some 80 minutes plus credits, feels slight, but you're not left wanting more. It's as stretched as it can be and there just still isn't much to admire on this inevitable journey to redemption that fails to resonate emotionally.

With its rampant Christmas lights and decorations, Whoville is an easy target for The Grinch.

The designs are somewhat faithful to Seuss' original illustrations but with the rounded faces that have almost made Illumination's movies visually distinct. Whoville looks pretty nice, with all its snow and colorful lights.
But while the medium represents a new frontier for this tale, the narrative fails to do anything remarkable or different. There's Pharrell Williams, affiliated with Illumination since their start on the Despicable Me franchise, serving as narrator, a role that seems to at least imply some form of blessing upon the music, which includes some new takes on old tunes (Tyler the Creator performs "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch"), familiar Christmas radio needle drops, and a score by Danny Elfman that contributes to the feel of a lesser Tim Burton work.

There's Cindy Lou Who (voiced by Cameron Seely), the blonde girl with upright pigtails and an unflappable spirit. There's Mr. Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson), a hairy new character who takes decorations to the extreme. There's a fat reindeer named Fred.

Credited to Tommy Swerdlow (Cool Runnings, Snow Dogs) and Michael LeSieur (Keeping Up with the Joneses, You, Me and Dupree), but undoubtedly punched up by others, the screenplay flirts with wit, as when the Grinch plays "All By Myself" on his organ. But a syrup bottle that sounds like farts is about the height of the comedy here. It's not as awful or over-the-top as that Ron Howard-directed montrosity, whose IMDb viewer rating has crept above 6.0 (rising half a point over the past ten years). And it's in slightly better taste than the franchise on which Illumination was built. But it's pretty frustrating to see the studio continue to settle for mediocrity and be rewarded for it. That was essentially Meledandri's modus operandi at Fox/Blue Sky, where the Ice Age franchise started at mediocre and kept plummeting, subsisting largely on the easily pleased nature of foreign market moviegoers. While Disney, Pixar, Studio Ghibli, and Laika are always looking at ways to advance the medium and use it to enchant with a mix of tradition and innovation, Illumination is content to just take something that sells itself, produce it with enough polish not to muster derision from the animation community and prosper off of stale slapstick and mild chuckle-inducing gags.

It's quite possible we don't get a better Christmas movie this year. This is slightly better than Disney's The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and clearly not going for the same audience as the probably limited release zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse. But that faint praise is as much enthusiasm as I can muster for this film. We've already had three quality mainstream animated movies this year -- Incredibles 2, Isle of Dogs, and Teen Titans GO! To the Movies -- to which Grinch cannot compare, with hopefully another two to come in Ralph Breaks the Internet and Into the Spider-Verse. It's unfortunate that this will likely be seen by a larger audience than most of the others put together.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms Smallfoot The House with a Clock in Its Walls
2018 Animated Films: Teen Titans GO! To the Movies Incredibles 2 Isle of Dogs
Illumination Entertainment: The Lorax The Secret Life of Pets Despicable Me Hop
Horton Hears a Who! The Peanuts Movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Arthur Christmas A Christmas Carol The Nightmare Before Christmas Prep & Landing Elf The Muppet Christmas Carol

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Reviewed November 8, 2018.

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