We all feel a little grinchy sometimes. When holiday cheer becomes particularly oppressive, when we feel lonely in a crowd, when we would rather rain on someone else’s parade than admit defeat, Dr. Seuss gave us a way to describe that feeling with his classic holiday children's book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” The universality of the emotion is why the tale endures, and why we're now on our third film adaptation of the story. With “The Grinch,” Benedict Cumberbatch steps into the title role, but fortunately for him, there's no prosthetic makeup involved — this is all computer animation.
The new version brings us closer to the animated 1966 TV movie starring Boris Karloff. Written by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow, and directed by Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier, “The Grinch” is faithful to the book, particularly in the visual style. The animation, by Illumination Entertainment, is stunning in its detail, down to the fleece on a jacket, the fur on the Grinch and the snow in the village of Whoville.
The simple story of the Grinch stealing Christmas and his heart growing three sizes is padded out with a bit more backstory for Miss Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely). Cindy Lou has a Christmas wish she badly needs to speak about with Santa. She's hoping her frazzled single mom, Donna Lou (Rashida Jones), catches a break, as she works all night as a nurse and spends all day taking care of Cindy and her twin baby brothers. Here's a tip, Cindy: The real S-word that could solve these problems isn't Santa, it's socialism.
So while “The Grinch” brushes up against the crushing horrors of late capitalism in both the conspicuous consumption of Christmas gift-giving and the reality of providing for a family and securing childcare, the film doesn't get too deep. Who would expect it to? This is an adaptation of a children's book about finding the true spirit of Christmas in community and connection, about learning to let go of old hurts and old ways and reaching out to neighbors. It's about love and kindness prevailing over everything else. It's just odd this would be the backstory the writers chose for Cindy Lou's mother. It is, however, relatable for American audiences.
The Grinch's issue is that he has felt rejected by the Whos since he was an orphan, and Christmas is his trigger. You know the tale — he enlists his loyal dog, Max, to steal all the Christmas gifts, and the film covers the logistics. There are necessary additions to the story, but anything that isn't directly from Seuss' book simply feels like underwritten fluff. Cumberbatch does elevate the material, but don't expect to hear any of his dulcet English tones. He goes for a higher, more nasally American accent, but it's a wonderful voice performance. Kenan Thompson is also a standout as Christmas-obsessed Bricklebaum.
“The Grinch” is beautiful to look at, and diverting enough. The material written to fill out the story is entertaining, but it doesn't resonate. You can't top what Seuss wrote, especially the poignancy of the Grinch realizing Christmas can't be stolen, because it isn't a thing. It's an idea, a spirit, a song. That is a good reminder for us every holiday season.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News service film critic.
Rated: PG, for brief rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov 9 in general release