The Movie Guru: Benedict Cumberbatch offers up a sweeter protagonist in ‘The Grinch’
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What: “The Grinch.”
Rated: PG for brief rude humor.
Screenplay by: Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow.
Based on the book by: Dr. Seuss.
Directed by: Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Pharrell Williams, Angela Lansbury, Kenan Thompson and more.
Grade: Two and a half stars.
Some things are just better animated.
That adage proves true once again with Illumination’s “The Grinch,” a surprisingly sweet take on the classic Dr. Seuss story. Though it’s not quite as perfect as the original animated short, the movie makes the extended run time easier to take by transforming the titular character into someone surprisingly likeable. With a nice soundtrack and rhyming narration that evokes the original book, it’s a worthy addition to anyone’s holiday movie collection.
Who hates Christmas?
If you’ve somehow missed hearing the plot before this, “The Grinch” tells the story of a mountain-dwelling hermit who hates Christmas. Unfortunately for him, the town at the bottom of the mountain goes absolutely crazy for it; throwing the biggest, loudest celebration they can every year. The Grinch decides to put an end to it by dressing up as Santa Claus and stealing their Christmas, enlisting his dog, Max, to help with the scheme.
In some ways, it’s exactly what you would expect from the studio that brought us “Despicable Me” and “The Secret Life of Pets.” Cindy Lou Who feels like the missing cousin to the three “Despicable Me” girls—so much so that I was convinced the girl playing her had voiced one of them (surprisingly, she hadn’t). The scene from the trailers with the reindeer snorting spray whipped cream is textbook Illumination, as is pretty much every joke involving a butt.
But the narration is so lovingly done it took me a moment or two to be sure it wasn’t pulled directly from the book. The songs riff on the famous numbers from the original short in the same way, honoring them while at the same time being playfully new. The only exception to this is “Welcome Christmas,” which was wisely kept exactly the same as in the original cartoon short.
Perhaps their most fundamental change, however, may have been their wisest. Instead of keeping the Grinch as the smirking villain he is for most of the book, they’ve transformed him into a crabby, lonely guy who only thinks he hates everyone. He actually cares for Max here, even though he pretends not to, and shows a few moments of thoughtfulness even before the big climactic Christmas ending we’ve all come to expect. Even that is done in a gentler, more well-rounded manner.
Though it’s a pretty big departure from the source material, the truth is that what works for a children’s book and a 20-minute cartoon falls flat in a full-length feature. Redeemed villains are very hard to get right, and movies are already stuffed with poorly done versions. It’s much easier, and more effective, to keep him from ever being a real villain at all.
Is it perfect? No. But “The Grinch” does offer a great message, a surprisingly gentle protagonist, and Christmas spirit with just enough sass not to set your teeth on edge. All in all, it’s a perfectly nice way to spend the holiday season.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at themovieguruslc @gmail.com.
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