Illuminations “The Grinch” is as cute, as a movie can be. Illumination is the brilliant minds behind the “Despicable Me” trilogy, “The Secret Life Of Pets” and those ever loving adorable “Minions”. Being cutesy is the biggest problem facing “The Grinch”, for I think it’s too cute. Illumination does what they do best with their animated films: it’s colorful, delightful and beautiful to look at. The animation is pure magic. This is their best work as an animation studio.
Directors Yarrow Cheney (“The Secret Life of Pets”) and Scott Mosier (Kevin Smith’s longtime producer) has a great sense of direction. This is one of the best directions I’ve seen in an animated film. There’s lots of camera swooping and smooth camera work, it feels like your visiting the inside of a magical snowglobe. The filmmakers builds on the source material without distending it past the point of the original’s charm. Also because entire generations have grown up with the story the film doesn’t have too many surprises. We get a tiny bit of Grinch back story that is surprisingly tragic, as the young Grinch was abandoned, a forgotten child whose exile as an adult is no longer self inflicted. Keeping to the book, his heart is too small, and his shoes may be too tight, but there’s a reason for his grumpiness in this version that’s not his fault. As a result we get a simple, elegant lesson about kindness, love and warmth.
The script by Michael LeSieur (“Glory Daze”) and Tommy Swerdlow (“Snow Dogs”) doesn’t dwell on his origin story the way the spectacular 2000 live action Ron Howard and Jim Carrey version does. This time taking on the role of “The Grinch” is “Sherlock” and “Doctor Strange” actor Benedict Cumberbatch. He isn’t trying to channel Boris Karloff who voiced the character in the 1966 television special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. Boris Karloff playing the Grinch was a spectacular choice, and the entire story was beautifully told in twenty-nine minutes. Cumberbatch’s Grinch or should I say Cumber-Grinch aims for exasperation and not sinister villainy. His Grinch is snarly and embittered, but you see a lot more kindness than the other two versions, even if they’re only directed mostly at Max. Although his turn around from grumpy to nice thanks to Cindy Lou happens way too quickly. I did love the scene of him going to a Christmas dinner wearing a tie around his neck. That was great.
Instead of “The Grinch” having a sinister villainy to him or being angry at other people’s joy during the holiday he can be seen as hollow and grumpy, he’s bitter about being left out in the first place. There’s a lesson being taught to “The Grinch”, but he is depicted here and shown to solve his loneliness, hate for people and Christmas by just sucking it up and getting over it. There are a lot of moments where “The Grinch” isn’t a mean one at all, he ends up showing the kind of empathy he’s meant to learn by the end of the movie. His dog, Max, is by his side throughout the entire movie. Despite “The Grinch’s” gruff and grumpy demeanour, it’s obvious Max cares about him and vice versa. What it comes down to is that the Cumber-Grinch is not all that bad of a guy and thanks to his new backstory, you can at least understand why he’s acting that way. Humanizing “The Grinch” also robs the character of the simple sneering, pink-eyed villainy that made him one of the greatest Christmas grumps in history.
It needs to be said though, the movie is a lot of fun. Illumination’s signature blend of physical comedy and “Despicable Me” style gadgets and gizmos gives the world around “The Grinch” a cute, beautiful looking but unnecessary update. This is not a radical reinvention of Dr. Seuss’s original book, with the screenwriters sticking to the basics of plot and characterization. “The Grinch” still keeps his distance from the town of Whoville while on a quest for personal sanity, trying to avoid anything even remotely resembling Christmas. For the film, this means holing up inside his mountain home, only coming down to mingle with the locals when he requires food after depleting his stock due to “emotional eating” in one of the films funnier scenes. “The Grinch” doesn’t turn the titular character into a monster, just a mild bully with no patience for the community, enjoying chances to mess with their joy. He is basically a green version of “Despicable Me’s” Gru. The Whovillians aren’t obnoxiously represented, with the writing having fun with their enthusiasm. Directors Mosier and Cheney keep the loudness to a minimum, having fun arranging annoyances for “The Grinch”.
They keep “The Grinch’s” pacing tight by ordering up kinetic visuals that fly around Whoville and smooth camera work flowing up to “The Grinch’s” mountain. The energy gives the picture momentum and a slapstick appeal, especially when the softening villain makes his plans to attack the town, using Christmas tools and a special sleigh to collect lights, trees, and presents from the sleeping residents. It’s a very colorful feature, but Moiser and Cheney crank up the character design and makes it tasteful, staying true to Illumination standards and Seuss’s imagination. Less enchanting and one of the elements i wasn’t a fan of was “Despicable Me’s” musical source Pharrell Williams who was chosen to narrate the film, his narration skills are lackluster. His dull rendering of this familiar tale adds nothing to the material. If only he added the kind of energy that the over the top visuals offered.
Like “Despicable Me” the hip hop tunes dominate the soundtrack, including a needless reworking of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from Tyler, the Creator that is bound to age badly. There are better ways to spice up older material, but Christmas vibes remain from some timeless Nat King Cole playing during the closing scene. “The Grinch” stays steady and short at just under 80 minutes with very minimal bloat. The filmmakers are trying to be respectful to the material as they shift little elements around, and they come up with an amusing effort that delivers on the basic outline of the source material.
Ron Howard did wonders with Jim Carrey in the live action version of the green furry, Christmas hating curmudgeon. Ron Howard merged the book of Dr. Seuss and its first adaptation, the 1966 television special, into a big-budget theatrical experience that remains the best version of the character. Now Universal who released the Ron Howard film is trying again with the brilliant minds at Illumination Entertainment. Even though their version of “The Grinch” is essentially the “Despicable Me” film all over again just with “The Grinch”, instead of Steve Carrell’s Gru. “The Grinch”, finds a place between literary and big screen worlds through a proper visual fluidity and Christmas spirit, returning color and buoyancy to Whoville. It preserves it’s heart, giving Cindy Lou a mission of kindness concerning her overtired mother. Moiser and Cheney don’t drown the movie in sentiment, but they maintain too much gentleness, while the more slapstick endeavors are appealingly voiced with great voice work from Cumberbatch. Although it still lacks the edge and comedy of Ron Howard’s live action film. This is one to see in theaters and is a thrill to see the flawless animation projected up on the screen like an over sized canvas.
GRADE: ★★★ OUT OF ★★★★★