There is an absolute dearth of worthwhile modern Christmas films. When one comes along, as silly and saccharine as Illumination can be, it’s cause enough for mild celebration. When compared to equally festive release of Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms this is clearly the holiday film of the moment. Having just explored the prior versions, my daughter’s first time with them, she seemed to prefer the oddly hallucinogenic Halloween is Grinch Night (1977) and the precocious Jim Carrey version to the The classic with Boris Karloff that I still swear by to this day. The placement of Illumination’s version of the Dr. Suess story among its peers is a little unclear. It’s really fine, but there are no obvious reasons for it to exist beyond the obvious business reasons.
Of course, rash business decisions do not make the most delightful children’s films. Generally, I think Illumination is pretty decent, the commercial Pixar, and their title card here, featuring their famed Minions and a Pet (presumably with a secret life), immediately draw the charm my family has enjoyed from those films.
Their style of animation is as crisp as a chill winter day. Layers of confectionary colors treat the senses to a brisk 90 minutes of visual delight. At its worst, the new Grinch is a breezy and slight escape during the holidays. It will not especially work as a double for the time-tested original, essentially remaking its components in Illumination’s house style, without any fixings or particularly new ideas. Like a big glass of egg nog, it’s a syrupy and bloating aside to the Christmas spirit. This is not the holiday feature anyone needed, an ornament but not a tree topper.
One of the problems with recreating the charm of the great Chuck Jones made-for-TV movie is that the original is only 26 minutes. It works within that brief segment, casting a memorable impression within the space of a children’s story book. Stretching that out another hour simply adds more running time. Without any invention, it feels like Scott Mosier has crafted an inoffensive approximation that says everything in needs to say, over and over, to make time.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays The Grinch here. He does so with an American accent. To that point, why would you hire a notable name and have them do anything other than a voice that is their own? He is playing to type of course, purposefully grouchy, although further aware of his own loneliness and with a transparency that shows right through the embittered attack on the holidays. Boris Karloff’s creation is in no way threatened, promptly imitated and without anything new to say about it.
There is some musical invention here. Popular rapper Tyler the Creator has crafted some really fine songs to go along with the merrymaking. His version of the theme song may be seen as an immediate improvement and has a cool modernized and well produced layer that may well just receive some holiday play for its ethereal coolness. There’s that and the usual songs, the Whos of Whoville caroling to the heavens and now singing more traditionalized Christmas fare. It has all the Christmas spirit of a holiday aisle at the grocery store.
The Grinch is not without merit. It washes over the audience with a purposeless precision to amuse the youth. It will fulfill that need well enough. There are worse ways to spend your holiday outings (immediately, Disney’s new Nutcracker), but there are so many tried and true stories to play from home, there’s hardly any reason to expend the effort here. Illumination may prove more resilient at creating their own meme-ready characters than adapting market ready trends and that’s perfectly fine, let’s keep it that way.