For me, Christmas cheer is tightly tied to the 1966 animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The hand-drawn animated wonder stars the voice of Boris Karloff, who famously also portrayed Frankenstein’s monster; his narration of the tale of Dr. Seuss’s iconic green and tiny-hearted character brings the 1957 children’s book to life with cleverness, merriness, and slightly dark humor. I love it, and so does my grandfather, who tries to pretend he feels a kinship with the Grinch, even though he’s a total softie. Every Christmas when I was a kid, we’d figure out when it was playing on TV and watch it together.
I say all this because I have zero feelings about the 2000 live-action version starring Jim Carrey, but my affection for the 1966 version made me seriously side-eye the idea of another animated adaptation, now the third film to take on Dr. Seuss’s classic holiday tale, with Benedict Cumberbatch ably voicing the title role and Pharrell Williams narrating the story. It seemed, frankly, like the least necessary remake imaginable.
But like the Grinch himself, watching the newest version — titled simply The Grinch — I felt my heart grow at least a few sizes, that day. My sour attitude was transformed into one of childlike wonder. I chuckled, I laughed outright, and I felt rather festive by the end, even though I saw it in early November. This movie’s heart, and its story, is definitely in the right place.
The Grinch updates the older story without losing its heart
No remake can escape the shadow of its predecessors, and The Grinch doesn’t try. This one isn’t quite as musical as the others, though the Whos down in Whoville do sing “Welcome Christmas” a couple of times. And it retains some of the most familiar tunes anyhow, with strains of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” showing up at times, including in a rapped version by Tyler, the Creator that plays as we’re introduced to the sourpuss himself and recurs throughout. (By the end, it seems possible that this song was always meant to be a rap.)
Dr. Seuss’s original book doesn’t provide enough material to really fill a feature-length film and so, as with the 2000 version, this one adds original rhymes. Some of them fill in the backstory of the Grinch himself: He was an orphan and spent some lonely Christmases in the orphanage while the Whos carried on with their merrymaking, thereby accounting for his, well, general Grinch-iness about the holiday.
Now the Grinch, green and scruffy, lives with his dog Max in an isolated home carved into the side of a snowy cliff high above Whoville, a town that really loves Christmas. (By the film’s own admission, they take it very seriously, but only celebrate for three weeks a year, which by my reckoning puts them far ahead of movie studios that release Christmas movies weeks before Thanksgiving. But in Hollywood, unlike in Whoville, profit is king.)
The Grinch and Max have a kind of Wallace and Gromit dynamic going, wherein Max is both pet and assistant to his master. Each year the Grinch stockpiles enough provisions to get him from Thanksgiving to New Year’s without having to venture into the festive Whoville, but this year, his emotional eating has thwarted his plan, and he has to go anyhow.
While in town, he encounters Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), the pigtailed elder daughter of single mom Donna Lou Who (Rashida Jones), who wrangles Cindy and her twin infant brothers with patience and aplomb. Cindy is on a mission to ensure that her letter to Santa arrives at the North Pole by Christmas, and her cheerful determination only serves to infuriate the Grinch more.
On the way home, he runs into Whoville’s resident optimist Bricklebaum (the glorious Kenan Thompson, the best part of the film), whose love for everyone and everything extends to the Grinch himself, though the Grinch finds his Christmas decorating abhorrent. (Bricklebaum is especially fond of those inflatable figures that pepper the lawns of suburban America; one look at his house’s decorations in their totality and you know his electric bill must be unmanageable.)
From there, the story runs along largely familiar contours, with the Grinch plotting to thwart the Whos’ Christmas by stealing it, dressing up as Santa, luring a lumbering reindeer named Fred into his service, and riding a sleigh into town on Christmas Eve to gather up the trees, decorations, and gifts, then dump it all over a cliff.
The Grinch weaves nostalgia and good humor in a winning, family-friendly package
While it doesn’t contain any surprises, this update fills in the familiar story of the Grinch with some heartwarming characters, slapstick, and chuckle-worthy jokes. Illumination Entertainment — the company that brought you the Minions and The Secret Life of Pets — has proper respect for Dr. Seuss purists, creating a splendiferous world full of visual gags and very cute creatures of the roly-poly Illumination sort while also peppering the town with creations that are recognizably Seussian. (The little boy seated behind me at my screening kept saying, “Mom, she is so cute!” every time Cindy Lou Who appeared onscreen.)
And the story of the Grinch has not lost any of its charm. It’s the tale of a town whose residents love celebrating their favorite holiday but haven’t lost sight of why: They love being together, and in this incarnation, they’re especially bent on making sure that nobody is left alone on Christmas Day. They seem to have a sense of how much of people’s animus toward others stems from feeling like they’re on the outside, and their solution is simple: Come over and eat some roast beast. Such a tale seems at once timely and transcendent.
For me, nothing will ever replace the experience of curling up with my grandfather, hearing him rumblingly sing “Your brain is full of spiders, you have garlic in your soul, Mr. Grinch — I wouldn’t touch you with a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole!” But The Grinch made me imagine laughing at the antics of the Grinch, Max, Fred the Reindeer, and little Cindy Lou Who with my own nieces and nephew, curled up on the couch with a mug of hot cocoa after a sumptuous feast of roast beast, and giggling at the fun we can all have together. Groundbreaking, The Grinch is not. But with a story this good, all you have to do is tell it well.
Cheers to all Whos, far and near.
The Grinch opens in theaters on November 9.