I know what you’re thinking: “Bah! Humbug!” Can a Christmas movie that’s being released in November, well before Thanksgiving, be any good? It just so happens that the new animated version of the Dr. Seuss classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a welcome, if early, Christmas gift. You’d have to be a Scrooge to resist it.
The Grinch (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) lives in a spacious mountaintop lair, high above the town of Whoville, with his faithful mutt, Max. When we meet him, five days before Christmas, he’s bitter and alone, a grumpy fur ball who just doesn’t feel the holiday spirit. What’s worse, he doesn’t want anybody else to feel it. Yet no matter what mischief he throws at the Whovillians – everything from refusing to accept their cheery wishes to knocking over their groceries – they take it in stride.
When the Grinch learns that the Mayor of Whoville (Angela Lansbury) has decreed that this year’s Christmas celebration be three times bigger than ever before, he lays plans for a major disruption.
He’s not the only one anxious about the holiday. Little Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) has an urgent wish for Santa. But this wide-eyed tyke doesn’t want toys. Rather, her wish is for relief for her overworked mother (Rashida Jones).
Can Cindy Lou’s selflessness teach the Grinch something about Christmas spirit?
Working from a script by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow, directors Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier stay close to the tone of the 1966 TV special based on Dr. Seuss’ book, even as they take liberties with backstory and character development. The Grinch’s aversion to holiday crowds, for instance, serves an unusual purpose here: helping you identify with the villain. That may be unexpected for a children’s movie, but what adult – or at least the introverted ones – hasn’t felt apprehension about the sometimes overly hectic holiday season?
Such empathy for the Grinch is, ironically, very much in the Christmas spirit. Like Cindy Lou, can’t we feel a little generosity of heart, even to those who wish us harm?
In an odd way, “The Grinch” feels like a kid’s version of last year’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” a heavy drama that invited us to see an unpleasant supporting character (Oscar winner Sam Rockwell) not as a monster, but as a human being, worthy of redemption.
With its charming character animation and inventive art direction, “The Grinch” is a vast improvement over Ron Howard’s live-action adaptation of the same story. That garish 2000 film, which starred Jim Carrey as the Grinch, looked like the cat that ate German Expressionism, the paintings of Thomas Kinkade and the Target holiday aisle, and then threw up a 100-minute hairball.
Compared with that travesty, this new “Grinch” is “Citizen Kane.” (In fact, the movie references Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece when we see the Grinch sharing a meal with Max, each of them at opposite ends of a long banquet table.) This endearing update of a holiday classic reminds us that the Christmas season can be hard for the lonely. It offers up an optimistic message that the Grinches of the world might melt their hard hearts if we meet them face to face – not with rancor, but with love.