How Illumination Stole Christmas – The Grinch

Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a timeless classic of children’s literature, and its 1966 TV cartoon adaptation a staple of holiday programming. In fact, for any of us over the age of 20, it’s likely that the book and the TV special are the core exposures we’ve had to the story. It’s simple, straightforward, and the perfect amount of sentimental. A grouchy green menace known as the Grinch hates Christmas, particularly the exuberant celebrations down in Whoville, a super festive town in the valley of the mountain where he lives. He dresses up as Santa Claus and with the help of his dog, Max, steals all the gifts and decorations of the town, only getting a momentary ounce of guilt when he encounters an innocent child, Cindy Lou Who (who’s no more than two). On Christmas morning, as he prepares to dump all the goodies off the mountain, the Grinch hears the citizens of Whoville singing in unison, and realizes that commercialism isn’t what Christmas is all about, but instead a time of joy and togetherness. He learns empathy, returns the gifts, and is welcomed into the community.

The book is very short, and the TV special only a half-hour long. Some people find a more religious message in the story than others, but everyone agrees that the Christmas spirit is born out of love, something the Grinch didn’t learn until he was exposed to it, making his undersized heart grow three sizes larger. It’s the perfect holiday story, and the cartoon so ingrained in our lives that the mere opening notes of “Welcome Christmas” can still bring tears to my eyes. And yes, the moral of the story still resonates to this day. “Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

Well, throw all that shit out the window, because Illumination and its Minion hordes have dumped The Grinch on us. Technically, the full title is Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch, but after seeing this mass-produced dreck, I’m fairly certain Ted Geisel would have NEVER allowed his name to be attached to this were he still alive.

This isn’t the first attempt to bastardize the story to feature length. Universal, which owns Illumination, released a live-action film in 2000 starring Jim Carrey and directed by Ron Howard. Now, there are a lot of things wrong with that movie as well, particularly the weird sexual references with Christine Baranski and the horrible Faith Hill song. But that film still has a lot of camp value due to Carrey’s performance and the surreal set designs that looked like an eggnog-induced fever dream of Tim Burton’s.

That seems to be the general tone of this animated version as well, but that just renders it even more pointless. Why have a cartoon when you’ve got a live-action film that accomplishes the same thing? I love animation more than most, but when Jim Carrey and a strong production design team can make a living cartoon, that’s automatically better. And again, that 2000 film was severely flawed, but this just seems like a lazy, dull knockoff with a lot of first-person perspective downhill skiing/sledding/tubing/racing sequences meant to justify an upcharge for 3D.

Gone are all the charms of the original, and even the second-rate first film. There are no Seussian made up words, no imaginative design for the Whos (some of them look like regular animated human character models while others have semi-furry faces). Hell, even the voice work is phoned in. Illumination, which gave us Despicable Me and Steve Carell as Gru, apparently thinks kids can’t understand accents anymore. Forget Boris Karloff, instead we have Benedict Cumberbatch as the Grinch, but without his trademark British accent, to the point where he sounds like a poor man’s Billy West. In previous outings, Karloff and Anthony Hopkins narrated the poetry (original text and manufactured copy for the film, respectively), but now we just have a lazy outing from Pharrell Williams. It’s like, if he can’t do an awesome original song, he might as well not even show up. Finally, the most iconic part of the original cartoon, the wondrous “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” is reduced to a half-assed mumble rap in the opening sequence (similar to the Despicable Me theme song) as we see Max the dog prepare the Grinch’s morning coffee with Rube Goldberg devices.

It’s painful how much this film just does not care about the source material. And that’s not just with the basic story elements, but the overall tone as well. I will give the film some credit for eschewing the typical Illumination trope of endless fart and poop jokes. I only counted one sight gag of the Grinch in booty girl sweatpants midway through to make the category of ass humor, but like most of the other jokes in the film, it just doesn’t land. For example, the film opens with the Grinch hitting his alarm clock, which goes off playing Christmas music. One, why not just set the alarm to beep, rather than tuning into some nebulous radio stations all playing music you hate? Two, he has a perfectly good bell alarm clock on the other side of his bed. So why do this gag? Oh, right, Universal cleared a bunch of songs that have to get played, so we get a lazy joke about the Grinch being enraged to the point of destroying his superfluous clock. I swear I have the ability to laugh!

There are also some very unsettling thematic elements in the film that really make you wonder what the intent was if you think about them for more than a second. A small point in the film’s favor is an attempt to explain the Grinch’s attitude as a sense of loneliness, stemming from a lack of family as a child. It’s an interesting trait to explore, because even in the original, one had to wonder how someone so curmudgeonly and at times outright evil could have such a loyal companion in Max, so I give credit where it’s due with the film at least attempting to flesh the character out a bit more with the extended run time.

But even then, I’m given pause, because this backstory revolves around a dank and lonely orphanage. In Whoville. Where baby Grinch is abandoned. And no one invites him around for Christmas. What. The. FUCK!?

And then, there’s Cindy Lou Who, portrayed as much older than two. She’s voiced by Cameron Seely, who played one of P.T. Barnum’s children in last year’s The Greatest Showman, so that’s two consecutive films for her where accuracy to story is unceremoniously defenestrated. Hopefully she’s used to it by now. In this version of the story, she wants to meet Santa Claus in person, recruiting her friends to set a trap for him on Christmas Eve (this forces the encounter with Grinchy Claus). She’s a pure soul, and all she wants is for Santa to do something special for her mom (Rashida Jones), who works as a night shift nurse and exhausts herself raising Cindy Lou and her twin baby brothers, Bean and Buster.

Again, this is seemingly a noble trait, but hold on, where’s the dad? Her brothers are infants, so that means that with no dad in the picture, something awful must have happened in the fairly recent past. In Whoville. Is he dead? Can Whos even die? Did he divorce/leave the mother? Why would this never be brought up? Is this a rabbit hole I should ever have to dive down in a children’s Christmas movie? Again I ask. What. The. FUCK?!?!?!

But most importantly (and infuriatingly) of all, the real message of the film is completely lost. The Grinch is, at best, an anti-hero, but really, based on everything he sees, his rage is completely justified. He was abandoned by the Whos as a child, and now he’s forced to endure their celebrations, even when he’s miles away up a mountain trying to simply live and let live. Instead, the music is unavoidable everywhere (just like in the real world, especially more than six weeks before the holiday). Gaudy decorations are brought in on hot air balloons because they’re too big for trucks. The Mayor of Whoville (they actually dragged Angela Lansbury into this, you guys) decrees that the Christmas celebrations must be at least three times bigger than the previous year. Even the simple act of going into town to buy groceries (at Who Foods instead of Whole Foods, cute) forces the Grinch to be waylaid by carolers literally chasing and assaulting him with ultra-religious songs like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Silent Night.” Again, the “little bit more” line from the original story (which, spoiler alert, is not even mentioned in this film) isn’t necessarily Christian in nature, so why go that route? I can’t imagine “Jingle Bells” would have been any less offensive to the Grinch. It certainly would have gotten the point across without proselytizing.

And then, on top of everything else, this movie completely misses the point because of merchandising. Yes, there were Grinch toys for the past 50+ years since the original special aired, but it was within reason. A doll here, a plush there. In this film, however, Universal and Illumination have pulled out all the stops to bombard the public with cheap crap. Toys, lunch boxes, Funko figurines, Happy Meals at McDonald’s, the list goes on. CHRISTMAS DOESN’T COME FROM A STORE, ASSHOLES!

Look, I understand that marketing and corporate tie-ins are a part of the movie industry, but at best they’re a necessary evil, and if there was ever a movie where this horrid practice should have been shelved, it’s this one. Instead, not only are we going full force, but entirely new characters are introduced – like a fat reindeer named Fred and a boisterous man who claims to be the Grinch’s friend (really just the closest “neighbor” to the mountain), played by Kenan Thompson using a toned down, less rapey version of his Bill Cosby impression – all to sell more toys. All of this is even more surprising and off-putting when you consider that the co-director of this film (along with Illumination veteran Yarrow Cheney), is Scott Mosier, best known as the frequent collaborator/producer/friend of Kevin Smith.

So I’m saying this now, in no uncertain terms. Do NOT see this movie. Don’t give Illumination the money, nor the satisfaction of duping you into 90 minutes of distracting your kids for nothing. If you need to entertain the kiddies, plop them down in front of the TV and show them the REAL version of this story. It’ll be more than enough.

Because honestly, given the choice between the two, I’d take the seasick crocodile every time rather than see this again.

Grade: D-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite holiday film? What exactly is a sinful sot? Let me know!

6 thoughts on “How Illumination Stole Christmas – The Grinch

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