THE GRINCH (2018, PG, 88 minutes, ILLUMINATION/UNIVERSAL PICTURES)
In the year 2000, Ron Howard reimagined the Dr. Seuss classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with a live-action film starring Jim Carrey. There has been much debate over the film’s merit, as it stretched a classic twenty-six-minute television cartoon into a movie four times that long (not to mention the fact that it starred one of the most frenetic comedic actors of the time), and most viewers either loved or hated it.
Count me as one of the latter; something about the Who’s of Whoville brought to life really creeped me out, and I thought the casting of Mr. Carrey seemed out of place.
So why would Universal give it another try? Why would the same studio take a film that, despite the mixed reviews, was highly successful at the box office, and remake it?
In short, because they could do it better. This animated retelling may be the best iteration of the story yet—and I’m including the Boris Karloff led Warner Brothers cartoon in that. I know, I know: blasphemy. But the wunderkinds at Illumination have crafted a story that is touching, relevant, and extremely funny, and have wrapped it in sharp animation that pays homage to its predecessor and creates a sense of wonder which overshadows prior attempts. There is something glorious about seeing all those lights in Whoville, and the attention to detail in the animation is precise and breathtaking.
Directors Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier, working from a script by Tommy Swerdlow and Michael LeSieur, keep the pacing consistent throughout. There are no lulls in the storytelling or the laughs, and the cast does a wonderful job in making you care about the goings on of a tale you probably already know. The standouts are Pharrell Williams as the narrator, whose lyrical delivery makes you want to reread the book (out loud, and with his voice), and young Cameron Seely as Cindy Lou Who. Ms. Seely does a fantastic job capturing the nuances and attitudes of a child (probably because she is one, but her comedic timing nears brilliance in certain moments). Benedict Cumberbatch is an interesting choice for The Grinch; he is confident and spontaneously erratic (when needed), and at times seems to channel only the better moments of Jim Carrey’s attempt at the role. Yet he makes it his own when it comes to his delivery and his commitment to the material; whereas Carrey never seemed to stop being Carrey, you feel the change in Cumberbatch’s Grinch. Occasionally, though, you wish Cumberbatch would just let loose a little more; his delivery is, again, confident, but his it also sometimes falls flat.
The only drawback to the production is Tyler the Creator’s version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”. There really isn’t any way to beat or outshine Thurl Ravenscroft’s classic baritone voice, and the studio seems to get this by only using a brief twenty or thirty seconds of this attempt. But said attempt is a mumbled mess, and honestly, pairing Tyler the (I am so not writing out his entire name again, as the only thing I think he created here is a new way to sing with a mouth packed full of stale sugarplums) with singing children is weird. Weird, and creepy.
The rest of the soundtrack is perfectly chosen. Danny Elfman’s score is inspired and complimentary to the action onscreen, and never once feels presumptuous or rudimentary. If anything, Elfman’s music adds additional layers to the animation, if that’s even possible.
This is one of those films that bears seeing twice, as there are many details you will probably miss the first time around (including the lovely diversity within the populace of Whoville). And to pull it off without any low-brow humor or fart jokes just shows the amount of respect the filmmakers have for the source material. Congratulations to Universal for allowing Illumination to take the reins on this one, and to all those involved (except for Tyler the Agitator) for creating a film I will definitely be adding to my yearly Christmas watch list.
-- T.S. Kummelman