Older children are apt to be skeptical. And anyone past voting age may need to be seriously stoned to swallow it. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not that the story can’t be done right outside of the classic 1957 Seuss book. The gold standard remains the wickedly whimsical 1966 TV version from director Chuck Jones, with an unapologetically nasty Boris Karloff voicing the mean, green Xmas-hating machine. And the latest Grinch is nowhere near as insufferable as Ron Howard’s 2000 live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas with Jim Carrey hyperventilating (don’t call it acting) as the G-man.
This new version from Illumination Entertainment — best known for Despicable Me and Sing — adds an hour of stuffing to a film that’s designed to offend no one or stick in the memory more than a few seconds after you see it. Voicing the Grinch this time is Benedict Cumberbatch, the brilliant British star of Sherlock Holmes using an American accent. Which begs the question: Why not just hire an American actor? Were Bill Murray and Bill Hader not available? Just sayin’.
In any event, the Grinch is still green but way less mean in his latest incarnation. Those expecting Cumberbatch to add a little Dr. Strange to his take on Dr. Seuss will be sorely disappointed. Directors Scott Mosier (making his feature debut) and Yarrow Cheney (The Secret Life of Pets) play it safe straight down the line. Yes, he will dress as Santa Claus to steal all the goodies. But how to make a whole movie out of that?
You don’t, so the script by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow brings on the padding. The Grinch gets a backstory to explain how he got grinchy. To humanize him further, there’s Cindy-Lou Who (voiced by Cameron Seely), a cute tyke with just one request for “Santa” (you-know-who in disguise): Make a better life for her hard-working single mom (Rashida Jones). Try objecting to that.
To add to the modern touches no one asked for, Tyler the Creator becomes the Grinch’s rap surrogate (“All them smiles homie, I turn ’em to frowns / All them decorations, I tear ’em down”) and Pharrell Williams offers a rhyming narration. Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, died in 1991, sparing him having to endure the alleged improvements to his classic. Still, there’s no denying that The Grinch offers a solid service to anyone with kids in need of a nap under a blanket of bland.