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The Grinch (2018)

In How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), there’s a scene in which the Grinch (as played by Jim Carrey) takes off his socks and throws them away. Upon hitting the ground, we see the socks crawl away in search of cover, squeaking in fear. That five-second shot perfectly encapsulates all the reasons why the live-action Grinch is still the best feature-length adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ written works to date.

Yes, the movie is loaded with crass humor, hammy overacting, and exposition that was neither wanted nor needed. Yes, the film owes much of its staying power to the novelty of being the first live-action Seuss adaptation. And of course it helps that holiday films and songs (particularly that insipid Faith Hill song from the soundtrack) are guaranteed constant round-the-clock ubiquity every December.

But I can’t bring myself to hate the movie because of all the effort and passion that so clearly went into it. The production design is gleaming with polish from first to last, and every effort was clearly made to present a Chuck Jones cartoon come to life. It had a vision of clarity and tone that was very distinct, or at least more consistent and true to the source material than all the subsequent Seuss adaptations we’ve had so far.

Still, the film was hardly perfect, which brings us to The Grinch, this year’s animated effort at expanding the classic children’s book to feature length.

Right off the bat, the 2018 film clocks in at 86 minutes, while the 2000 film ran for 105 minutes. Those 20 minutes make a hell of a difference, as the animated film is much more streamlined. There’s significantly less padding, and the padding that we get makes a lot more sense. There’s no massive backstory given to the Grinch, and no time wasted on arbitrary Cheermeister nonsense, thank Geisel. Instead, the movie stays focused on the Whos’ preparations for Christmas and the Grinch’s preparations to steal Christmas, which is exactly where the filmmakers should have been focused.

What’s even better, the Whos aren’t materialistic assholes as they were in the Ron Howard film. Instead, they’re just incredibly cheerful people who want to express their being happy, want everybody else to be happy as well, and worry about anyone who isn’t happy like something must be wrong with them. As for the Grinch himself (voiced this time by an unrecognizable Benedict Cumberbatch), we get just enough backstory to see that he grew up in an orphanage, and he never got to spend a happy Christmas with his family as so many other children did. Thus we have a vicious cycle in which the Grinch has so many negative associations of Christmas, so the Whos try harder to cheer him up, which only has the opposite effect. This is most plainly seen when the Grinch is relentlessly pursued by a band of aggressively happy carolers.

Another great example comes when the Whos partake in a massive tree lighting ceremony, with a tree the size of a skyscraper and enough lights to be visible from outer space. The Grinch is upset that the Whos are putting up this enormous blazing eyesore without any warning to or input from the guy living in the cave next door, and can you blame the Grinch for being upset about that? So he tries to stop the ceremony, the tree gets lit anyway, and it’s this huge extended sequence. Then the Grinch is done stealing Christmas and we can plainly see the tree is left standing. That seems to me like a pretty glaring oversight, but whatever.

The point is, what we’ve got here is someone who associates Christmas with bad and painful memories. So of course he’s upset by all the forced holiday cheer, ostracizing himself so he doesn’t have to deal with the social pressure to be happy. That’s sadly not an uncommon attitude toward the holiday season, and it gives the Grinch a sympathetic reason to hate Christmas.

On the other hand, while the Whos are wrong to try and make everybody as happy as they are, the Grinch is even more wrong to try and make everyone as miserable as he is. At least the Whos have good intentions, and they’re trying to spread more of the love and kindness that the world so desperately needs. Plus, while being lonely can be healthy every now and then, we all need friends and loved ones as well. If nothing else, maybe Christmas serves as a time when we can try a little bit harder to be nice to our fellow human beings, and open doors that might otherwise stay closed. That’s a very sweet message for a Christmas movie, and one that serves as a natural extension to the source material.

That said, I am a little disappointed that the Grinch never directly asks the Whos to be a little more considerate about the Grinch’s unorthodox feelings and negative associations toward the holiday. Say what you will about Carrey’s portrayal, at least he called the Whos out on their shit.

While I appreciate the film’s efforts at showing the Grinch in his planning and preparation for the big heist, it does fall short in a couple of ways. For one thing, the Grinch makes extensive use of gadgets and gizmos more advanced than that of your average Gotham supervillain. I’ll remind you that in the live-action version, Carrey’s rendition of the character lived in the Whoville dump, and we could clearly see that he was well-practiced at cobbling together all sorts of devices from random junk. Without any setup so elaborate or subtle, it doesn’t make nearly as much sense that the Grinch could invent all of this stuff offscreen in a matter of days.

Yes, I realize that I’m talking about sense in a Dr. Seuss movie, but I hope you get my point.

The other noteworthy addition is Fred, the reindeer that joins the Grinch in his heist. Of course it makes total sense that the Grinch would at least try to find an actual reindeer. Moreover, I’ll admit that Fred’s inclusion does pay off in a few crucial and satisfying ways. But getting through the setup to those payoffs was exhausting. I found Fred to be a useless and unfunny inclusion, especially since — by virtue of the source material — we know perfectly well that he won’t be there for the actual heist in any event.

Oh, and whomever came up with that “screaming goat” gag, I hope they got fired. If not for this, then for something else.

Then we have Cindy Lou Who, voiced by Cameron Seely. I am so overwhelmingly grateful that the filmmakers didn’t even try to make Cindy Lou a saint. (Looking at you, Ron.) That said, Cindy Lou is deeply concerned about her mother (inexplicably named “Donna”, and voiced by Rashida Jones), who’s overworked as the single mother of three kids. Again, it’s a very sweet commentary about the stresses of the holiday season, especially given the sentiment that Donna doesn’t even mind all the work because she loves her kids so much. All well and good.

Anyway, being a young child, of course Cindy Lou’s first thought is to ask Santa for help. Long story short (too late!), Cindy Lou gets it into her head that the best way to ask Santa for help is to meet him on Christmas Eve and ask in person. I’m paraphrasing and dancing around spoilers here, but I promise it makes more sense in context. More importantly, it’s a neatly clever way of putting Cindy Lou Who directly into the Grinch’s path, forcing the Grinch to put more effort into his ruse as an impostor Santa. It also puts an unexpected burden on Cindy Lou, as she faces the possibility that maybe her antics upset Santa and she’s the reason why he stole Christmas.

It’s not a bad idea. It’s just a shame that we had to go through so many asinine setups in getting to the payoff.

Moving on to the cast, of course Benedict Cumberbatch hams it up in the main role. I’m not going to give him shit for that, and I’m done giving shit to Jim Carrey about it. Seriously, think about it: How could anyone underplay the Grinch? How could anyone bring any kind of nuance to that role? What would that even look like? Would you want to see it?

Rashida Jones does perfectly well as the loving yet overworked matriarch, and Kenan Thompson turns in some memorable work as a comic relief character. We get a cameo appearance from freaking Angela Lansbury, and of course it’s a delight to hear her voice. Then we have Pharrell Williams as the narrator. While he’s got a wonderful voice, the storytelling leans on voice-over narration to an unhealthy degree, and I’d be amazed if even two-thirds of his lines were anything that Dr. Seuss wrote.

This is something else I have to give the live-action film: At least they actually used the source text. I’m pretty sure every word from the book made it into that script verbatim. Compare that to the animated film, in which copious lines from the book are only paraphrased and several words are altered. For an 86-minute film adapting a 69-page picture book known for the author’s distinctive language, how in the nine hells do you fuck that up?!

Then we have the music. Grandmaster Danny Elfman is on hand to write the score, making effective use of the iconic songs from the Chuck Jones cartoon. Hiring the man who gave us the unimpeachably classic Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack was an inspired move for this particular film, and he turns in a suitably impressive score. And of course we have a wide variety of Christmas tracks on hand, running the gamut from “Deck the Halls” to “Christmas in Hollis”.

But then the filmmakers went and hired Tyler the Creator to cover the classic “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” in what has to be the worst choice I’ve ever seen since Fall Out Boy butchered the Ghostbusters theme. What, was R. Kelly unavailable? Chris Brown wouldn’t pick up the phone? Seriously, with all respect to Tyler the Creator, he was so obviously the wrong choice for this, and his godawful cover of this iconic song is proof. I have to assume that the filmmakers made a list of the recording artists who were most clearly and obviously wrong to cover this track, then ran down the list until they could find one who was available.

With all of that said, I can honestly say that I didn’t hate The Grinch (2018). There were some good ideas here, with a lot of genuinely funny sight gags. I appreciate that the filmmakers didn’t go too far off-base in finding new material to pad the film, and the themes of the book are expanded upon in relevant ways while staying true to the source material.

There are really only two big problems. The first is that it’s an Illumination film, which means that it’s loud, fast, stupid, noisy, and scrubbed of all personality. The second is that it’s an adaptation of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”, which means that it’s entirely useless. We already have the classic timeless book, and we already have the classic timeless Chuck Jones cartoon short. Nobody was asking for the 2000 live-action film, and nobody was asking for the 2018 animated film.

I expect that the 2000 film will last longer in the public consciousness, if only because of inertia. Plus, that one cloying Faith Hill song is damn well guaranteed to get more radio play in December than Tyler the Creator’s entire collected discography all year. Still, the 2018 attempt is a harmless bit of fun, and it’s bound to be inescapable by virtue of being a holiday film. So when the movie inevitably comes to a TV near you, go ahead and give it a look.

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