It’s a tale as old as time — or at least as old as 1957, when Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! was first published: A mean, green, potbellied curmudgeon comes up with a plan to steal Christmas from his annoyingly festive neighbors. Despite a contemporary soundtrack punctuated by hip-hop tracks, the new animated adaptation of the classic children’s book is a largely faithful retelling, but The Grinch still has a few tricks up his sleeve … so to speak.
You’re likely familiar with The Grinch story, which inspired two previous adaptations: The beloved 1966 animated television special and Ron Howard’s lesser-beloved live-action film from 2000, starring Jim Carrey. The new adaptation, co-directed by Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier (longtime filmmaker friend of Kevin Smith), uses vibrant 3D animation to put a somewhat modern spin on the classic story of a grouchy creature who learns the true meaning of Christmas. Like the 2012 adaptation of Seuss’ The Lorax, this iteration of The Grinch comes to us via Illumination Entertainment, those purveyors of the insufferable yellow creatures known as Minions. Thankfully, Illumination’s latest effort is far more enjoyable.
Benedict Cumberbatch does a surprisingly delightful job of voicing the Grinch, ditching his native British accent and adopting a familiar American cadence — this Grinch could easily be your grumpy uncle from the East Coast. He lives in solitude with his adorable dog Max (the best onscreen iteration of the character to date) in a cave above Whoville, dreading Christmas and all the unreasonable cheer it brings to those unbearably kind-hearted Whos. While the basic plot is mostly the same, there are some notable additions here, chief among which is a new backstory for the Grinch, who was orphaned as a child and came to despise Christmas because it was something enjoyed and celebrated by families — which he did not have.
The residents of Whoville include the zealously jolly Bricklebaum (voiced by a hilarious Kenan Thompson), the precocious Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), and her overworked mom Donna (Rashida Jones), who tirelessly cares for her daughter and twin boys. Screenwriters Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow make the wise choice of never explaining exactly what happened to Donna’s husband, which helps maintain a subtle sense of relatability. In her father’s absence, however, Cindy Lou is determined to detain Santa Claus on Christmas Eve to ask for a very special gift: Her mom works so hard and does so much for others; all Cindy Lou wants in return is for her mother to be happy.
Meanwhile, the Grinch has hatched a scheme to steal Christmas from the residents of Whoville, with the aid of trusty Max and an assist from an overweight reindeer named Fred (who easily has the most hilarious moment in the film). You can see where these dueling plots are heading from a mile away, though it stops just shy of total predictability in the final moments. It’s hard to criticize the familiarity of The Grinch too much; as an animated film based on an iconic children’s story, it definitely plays to its target audience like gangbusters. (One child at my screening shrieked with glee every time a character was injured. He is my new best friend.)
The most significant changes to The Grinch aren’t necessarily those that pertain directly to its plot. In the process of modernizing the story for a new generation, the Illumination team did what other filmmakers failed to do with previous adaptations: They gave Whoville some diversity. Yes, Cindy Lou and her mom (and most of the Whos) are still white (or whatever constitutes caucasian in Whoville), but there are numerous citizens of color throughout. (It is still strange, however, for Rashida Jones to voice a white Who woman.) Pharrell Williams narrates the film, while the Grinch gets a revamped theme song performed by Tyler, the Creator — and it’s actually great, unlike some of the other contemporary covers of classic songs featured in similar remakes. Whoville has apparently also elected its first woman mayor, voiced by the great Angela Lansbury.
The Grinch doesn’t wholly reinvent the Dr. Seuss classic, but it never really needed to. Despite its familiarity, the new version is effective and heartwarming, particularly as it emphasizes the concept of empathy. When the Grinch steals and inevitably returns their Christmas, the Whos react with understanding and forgiveness — he may not look or act like them, but this Grinch, like everyone else in Whoville and beyond, is dealing with his own problems and feelings. These are basic lessons in kindness and empathy that every child should learn … and maybe a few grown-ups, too.