It’s hard to imagine a Christmas without the Grinch. The character first appears in “The Hoobub and the Grinch,” a poem from a 1955 issue of Redbook. From there, Dr. Seuss wrote and illustrated “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” in 1957. The classic animated special followed nine years later in 1966 with Boris Karloff as the voice of the titular role and narrator. The green curmudgeon finally made his way to the big screen in Ron Howard’s 2000 film “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” with Jim Carrey as a more frightening Grinch. Seeing as that film was the top domestic grosser of the year, it’s surprising it took this long for an animated remake. That doesn’t make Illumination Entertainment’s new version, “The Grinch,” essential by any means. However, this new version features a sweet family formula and colorful visuals.
Once again, it’s days before Christmas and The Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is grumpy. The holiday cheer the Whos down in Who-Ville has reached new levels. Three times the normal level to be exact. The Whos declare this Christmas will feature three times the lights, presents and cheer. Aghast at the proceedings, the Grinch concocts a devious plan. He and his trusted dog Max scheme to steal Christmas from the Whos. The Grinch researches Christmas and all its trappings to masquerade as Santa and rob all the Who-Ville houses on Christmas night.
Despite the same basic framework, this Grinch feels much different than the last cinematic Grinch. Most of that comes down to Benedict Cumberbatch, who voices The Grinch. Cumberbatch portrays the Grinch as more of a loner who just wants his privacy. This lends itself to a nicer, more genial version of the film. Compare that to Jim Carrey’s Grinch, who truly frightens with every gesticulation and gesture. One wishes Cumberbatch would make more of a mark on the character. Even Karloff in the animated original manages to make The Grinch more of a devious rascal. It’s possible to make the Grinch both a bit scary and likable. Cumberbatch’s Grinch plays it more straight down the middle.
The story stays as thin as the 26-minute animated special, which this adaptation hews closest to in tone. Writers Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow take this framework and hang roughly an hour of colorful antics that seem straight out of Illumination’s “Despicable Me” franchise. Meanwhile, Directors Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier make it all pop. The animation looks clear, bright and engaging throughout. The antics usually elicit a perfunctory smile as well. The one major addition, a large moose named Frank, gets some of the biggest laughs as he trains to be the Grinch’s reindeer. All of this makes the new addition nice, but rarely memorable.
The one story element that sticks out relates to Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), a young Who trying to meet Santa. The little girl engineers a plan to stay up on Christmas Eve to directly tell Santa her Christmas wish. Her wish revolves around her Mom, Donna Lou Who (Rashida Jones). Cindy wishes her Mom would find love or someone to help her, since her Mom both works and takes care of her and her siblings. It’s a sweet subplot that teaches kids to be cognizant of their parents.
For all that makes “The Grinch” redundant, there’s enough that still warms the heart. Illumination’s animation makes every shot light up the screen like a house full of Christmas lights. The supporting voice cast also features some standouts. Kenan Thompson provides lots of heart and cheer as Bricklebaum, the jolliest of all the Whos. It’s also fantastic to hear Angela Lansbury lend her indelible voice to The Mayor of Who-Ville. This version features less memorable moments of oddness or quirks. There’s no Jim Carrey chewing glass or Molly Shannon facing off against Christine Baranski in a Christmas lights contest. Still, the heart of the source material that grows three times its size continues to beat in this latest adaptation.