If it’s true that the Christmas holiday season is continuing its march toward calendar domination, then it’s also true that the number of Christmas movies made each year is also increasing. The cable network Lifetime is especially guilty of the latter, as this year’s slate of Lifetime Original television films currently rests at a whopping 23 titles, never mind Netflix dipping its toes into the Yuletide weather. But then there’s, always, The Grinch.
Thus enters the third adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas! since its publication in 1957. The first was the 1966 animated television special narrated by Boris Karloff while the second was the 2000 live-action film directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Carrey in the title role. Now, these two forms have merged into a 3D-computer animated feature from Illumination Entertainment, the studio responsible for the Despicable Me films and the 2012 adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.
Given another 20 years, the story of the mean, green titular anti-hero who tries to ruin Christmas for the citizens of Whoville, but instead comes to appreciate the holiday season just in time to make things right, could achieve A Star is Born status with a fourth entry. After all, considering the early box office projections for this weekend’s new releases, The Grinch should have no problem beating out The Girl in the Spider’s Web and Overlord, so Illumination’s take on the children’s book may very engender a sequel. But hopefully this won’t happen anytime soon.
What directors Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier (yes, that Scott Mosier), and writers Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow, achieve shouldn’t however be relegated to simply their financial value. The Grinch, despite its being the third adaptation of a beloved children’s Christmas story, is a fantastic film that finds the right balance of the old and the new.
In terms of the old, The Grinch’s story follows pretty much the same blueprint as its source material and predecessors. No major or outlandish changes have been made to Dr. Seuss’ original story, for Benedict Cumberbatch’s tremendous Grinch is very much the cave-dwelling, Who-hating sourpuss whose ire specifically revolves around the Christmas season. As ever he remains a malcontent who prefers his alone time atop the great mountainous peak that overlooks the village of Whoville, yet still with his faithful companion, Max the dog, always by his side.
In terms of the new, the liberties taken by The Grinch do nothing to take audiences young and old out of the viewing experience, but do everything to better explain why things are the way they are. This Grinch, it turns out, actually has a nice streak in him that always seems to be at odds with his meaner outlook. His relationship with Max is the most obvious sign of this, for instead of simply tasking the dog with various chores, he actively spends time with his pal playing music, cheating at chess, and other activities meant to pass the time. The two are very much a team, and while Grinch still forces himself about, he never directs his anger at the dog.
The addition of the reindeer Fred, is another example. Once the Grinch decides that he is going to literally steal everything having to do with Christmas from the people of Whoville, he and Max go on a short journey in search of something to pull Santa’s sleigh. Enter Fred, a rotund member of the caribou species that Grinch and Max enlist into their schemes. This subplot and its particulars, which won’t be spoiled here, are one of the more obvious additions to the familiar story, but that doesn’t lessen their impact. On the contrary, Fred ends up having a huge influence on The Grinch.
This is really one of the biggest points of this particular iteration of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, which works surprisingly well. Aside from the “heart two sizes too small” motif, Dr. Seuss’ book never delved too deeply into question and possible motivations that shaped the Grinch’s meanness. So when Howard and Carrey brought it to the big screen in 2000, writers Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman decided to add some backstory. That version of the Grinch was adopted as an infant in Whoville and, in later childhood, bullied for his greenness and other differences.
In a clever twist that subtly mirrors one of the supporting character’s stories, 2018’s The Grinch amends this backstory to focus on his abandonment in an orphanage. This, the film argues, is where the Grinch’s intense loneliness and ill feelings toward all things Christmas comes from. He isn’t sadistic for the sake of sadism. He isn’t mean just because it’s fun to be a bully. Rather he is so completely alone, and has been for the majority of his life, that the Grinch feels he must remain this way, in a kind of self-imposed isolation from the outside world. All this is to avoid the very trauma that made him this way in the first place.
Of course The Grinch is a movie for kids, but one whose story and PG rating are indicative of something greater. It’s more than just another adaptation of an otherwise simple and straightforward Christmas story. Yes, it’s still pretty simple and straightforward, but the nooks and crannies added by Illumination’s team, Cumberbatch’s fellow voice cast members (Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson, Angela Lansbury and Cameron Seely) make it something else. The Grinch is an enjoyable and refreshingly unique Yuletide film in theaters by Christmas movies, and its early timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
The Grinch opens in theaters on Nov. 9.