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’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. This time around, Benedict Cumberbatch steps into the role as the Grinch in “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch,” but fortunately for him, there’s no prosthetic makeup involved — this is all computer animation.
This animated version brings us closer to the 1966 TV movie featuring the voice of Boris Karloff. Directed by Yarrow Cheney (“The Secret Life of Pets’) and first-timer Scott Mosier, and written by Michael LeSieur (creator of TV’s “Glory Daze”) and Tommy Swerdlow (“Snow Dogs”), the film is faithful to the book, particularly in the visual style.
The animation is stunning, detailed down to the fleece on a jacket, the fur on the Grinch and the snow in the village of Whoville.
The story about the Grinch stealing Christmas and his heart growing three sizes is well-known. It’s padded out with a bit more back story 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 (Rashida Jones), catches a break. She works all night as a nurse and spends all day taking care of Cindy and her twin baby brothers.
But while the movie brushes up against the horrors of capitalism in terms of both the conspicuous consumption of Christmas gifting and the reality that is providing for a family and securing child care, the film doesn’t get too deep.
Who would expect it to? This is an adaptation of a children’s book that’s 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.
The Grinch’s issue is that he’s felt rejected by the Whos since he was an orphan, and Christmas is his trigger. He enlists his loyal dog, Max, to steal all the Christmas gifts, and the film gets into the logistics. To fill out the narrative to feature film length, there are necessary additions to the story that must be made, 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. Other familiar voices include those of Angela Lansbury as the mayor of Whoville and Pharrell Williams as the narrator.
“Dr. Seuss’ 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’s always going to be a good reminder for us every holiday season.