Christmas is swiftly upon us, and the season is about to get a whole lot greener. Not merely because Illumination Entertainment has released its new adaptation of The Grinch, but because it is going to make a whole lot of cash. And it makes me kinda sick.
From the studio that produced the Despicable Me movies and 2012’s terrible The Lorax, The Grinch is the second film the highly profitable family animation studio has made based on Dr. Seuss’s adored text, and it’s the second time the story of the holiday-hating green grouch comes to the silver screen after 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Unremarkable from its designs to its intentions, and almost completely lacking in anything rich or meaningful or enjoyable to glean from its endearing source material, The Grinch is certainly more humbug than humdinger; a feckless, frigidly franchise-minded flatline, a freezing froth of filth, that fails to find anything fun to furnish in this frosty fall season of festivities.
It made me long to leave the warm theater and brisk it in the cold weather outside. The Grinch is such an uninvolving bore that it made me long for the wacky weirdness of 2003’s The Cat in the Hat. Misguided though that film undoubtedly is, at least that feature-length adaptation was willing to take a risk or two. Forgive my snarky prose, but even the nasty old Grinch would be put off by this film’s shameless intentions. To suggest that it stink, stank stunk would suggest it was never going to be less than rotten. It is certainly foul and vile and deplorable rubbish. But that gives the movie too much credit. Because these words suggest it’ll leave an impression.
The Grinch (2018) is the type of movie that feels like it was made to be sold in a Sears catalog someday. It serves to exist and to provide a profit — which it will handily do — based on its popular property. It is serviceable, inoffensive, bland and brand-friendly. It doesn’t offer much in terms of depth or mental stimulation; the kids might be kept amused by the bright, vivid and sometimes rather garish imagery presented on-screen, while the parents in the audience can check out mentally or even snooze and know the gist of the story, based on its prominence in pop culture and how The Grinch doesn’t really do anything that hasn’t already been seen in Dr. Seuss’s book or explored in either its television or previous film adaptation. It is designed to be mostly tolerable.
And that’s where the biggest problems arise. Illumination Entertainment is a company that is content to produce content that shoots straight down the middle — in terms of quality, at least. Now, I don’t want to assume the worst; perhaps they really do care about the importance of cinema and they just have funny ways of showing it with their means of producing cute, middling movies. But the animation house’s entire business motto often seems as if it’s more interested in the capital that’ll be produced. Yet, each film seems like it’s designed like they’re aiming to make everything simply “good enough.” Good enough to where they’ll be flashy and flirting with creativity enough to suggest (or even promise) that there will be more to enjoy as the film continues its trajectory. But as you watch their movies time and time again, you begin to see their pattern. And it feels like they just want to make a bunch of middle-of-the-road movies with just enough charm and cuteness factor to appeal to kids and sell that merchandise.
I apologize if my review is becoming more of a rant on Illumination Entertainment and less of a critique or commentary on the second feature-film adaptation of The Grinch. But it gets harder and harder to talk about any of their films without thinking about the company’s intentions because their movies are becoming more and more corporate. Every creative decision feels agonizingly safe — as if it was made by a large committee.
Nothing about it feels organic and fruitful; The Grinch feels like it is reaching an end-year quota. While it doesn’t completely miss the point of Dr. Seuss’ source material the way the horrendously commercialized and rigorously shallow The Lorax did in 2012, it is ironic how this version of The Grinch spouts the familiar message of how the holiday season is about being with the ones you love, rather than all the gifts and materials that come with the snowy end-of-the-year season, yet it feels like it is reaching a business demand and trying to be shipped out into theaters to sell a whole bunch of fluffy toys.
It will be consumed and widely seen, but there’s no evidence that it will make much of a cultural impact. Even hours after seeing it, I’m finding my memory of this film eroding. It’s not so much forgettable as it is indistinguishable. It leaves little-to-nothing to impart. But it does, technically stand, above the shoulders of 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, mainly because A) it’s not the ugliest looking movie in the world like that film arguably was and B) it is not as weirdly perverse and crudely crass like that particular film chose to be, unfortunately. But there’s little in the way of authentic magic, heartfelt care, and genuine glee. It is a film that promotes the idea of not being cynical and enjoying the yuletide festivities, yet it’s hard not to be cynical leaving the theater still knowing that Dr. Seuss’s legacy will continue to be bastardized with film adaptations that try to make a quick buck off his legacy while never understanding and/or appreciating what the poetic author said. One can’t help growing weary by a cycle that comes around almost as annually as the holiday season does this time of year.
Benedict Cumberbatch voices the title character, and he provides the same snarl and sneers he gave to Smaug in The Hobbit features, mixed with a nasally wheeze — as if the Grinch has a perpetual sinus infection from living way up in the snowy mountains. His portrayal of the character is … fine. Less noteworthy than the flashy take provided by Jim Carrey and not nearly as feisty and ravenous as Boris Karloff in 1966’s special, but there is a bit of maniac glee in his voice that suggests he’s having a good bit of fun. For a character that’s defined by his meanness, though, his take on the Grinch isn’t really all that mean. Rude? Certainly. Annoyed? Always. Beyond unkind acts in a grocery store sequence, however, this Grinch feels sanitized and watered down.
As if Illumination Entertainment —the house that brought us the minions — was afraid of having a character that was too full of ‘tude in the high altitude (kids might not want to buy a Grinch toy if he’s too mean, you know…), the Grinch is weirdly made nicer. The filmmakers don’t really have fun with the nasty side of the Grinch, opted to make him a touch mean-spirited but rarely the disgruntled degenerate we’ve come to expect. While it does result in a few nice scenes with his companion, Max the dog, it’s inauthentic. And pitifully half-assed attempts to develop his character’s backstory, suggesting that his grinchiness comes from abandonment issues and potentially seasonal depression, are telegraphed and force-fed into this narrative with no real perspective and insight. It also verges on insulting for people like me who actually have seasonal depression.
There are sporadic moments of amusement to be found throughout The Grinch. There is a brief and entirely random dream sequence involving Max the dog that found this critic in hysterics for nearly half a minute. And the Christmas stealing sequence is decently fun, harkening back to the dark giddiness of The Nightmare Before Christmas. (Side note: Now that I think about it, The Nightmare Before Christmas might technically be the best feature film adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas we’ve got…) But it is a film that aims to arrive a release date on a company’s calendar during their fourth quarter, one hitting the established beats and hoping to appeal broadly.
It doesn’t have a unique spin or much in the way of fun or creative ideas when it comes to forcefully stretching this 20-minute story into the 90-minute mark. It simply does its job. That level of indifferent mediocrity results in something that is rotten in its own way. The Grinch will be seen by many and make millions in the box office. But if you’re hoping it will make your heart grow any larger, think again.