Film Review: Dr. Seuss' The Grinch

For tiny tots only, and their long-suffering adults. A predestined hit based on the strong brand and property, this animated adaptation of the classic children's book turns the Grinch from a menace to pathetic.
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 Every tot at the screening / liked this film a lot. / But this critic at that very screening / did NOT!

A saccharine spectacle compared to the animated special "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" (1966), also based on the classic children's book by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), this second movie version after the middling 2000 live-action feature neuters the Grinch and turns the good doctor's misanthropic menace to merely a grumpy old man.

Anyone familiar with the book or with director Chuck Jones' celebrated TV toon, in both of which the Grinch is a G-rated sociopath, will find themselves bewildered by the bumbling, defanged, sentimental schlimazel here. A handful of very young children at a screening found the movie uproarious, so it clearly seems to accomplish its babysitting function. But for anyone who has to sit there with them, it's painful to see the formidable Grinch become the punching bag for the Whos down in Who-ville, as when a group of carolers chases him down the street to force-feed him their Christmas hymn, or when a comic-relief grizzled type obliviously insists he and the Grinch are best friends.

Dr. Seuss' The Grinchsplits its focus between the Christmas-hating Grinch (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) and Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), the child who ultimately catches him stealing presents and decorations in his vain attempt "to stop Christmas from coming," and who nonetheless believes his lie that he is Santa Claus and has a good reason for temporarily removing things. This Cindy Lou is less an innocent tiny tot than a six- or eight-year-old who precociously schemes—and whose character design, personality and having a single mother all seem directly…let's say "inspired"…by the little girl Heart in Mark Tatulli's long-running comic strip "Heart of the City." Cindy Lou even has a perennially wide-eyed and befuddled male best friend, Groopert (Tristan O'Hare), reminiscent of Heart's perennially wide-eyed and befuddled male best friend, Dean.

To Dr. Seuss' beloved story, screenwriters Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow and directors Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier add the aforementioned comic-relief grizzled type, Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson, admirably invested and totally going for it); a fat, yak-line reindeer named Fred; and Cindy Lou's Scooby-gang of friends and her frazzled mom, Donna (Rashida Jones). The bones of the story remain as ever, with new bits of business that include a slapstick tree dedication, an angry guard dog, and the Grinch grocery shopping. The best part of the film is the extended Christmas-stealing sequence in which the filmmakers fully explore all the visually kinetic possibilities of Inspector Gadget gear turned Seussian.

As generations of children know, of course, the hermit sees the error of his ways and triumphantly finds accord with the Whos. And equally of course, the filmmakers believe they have better emotional beats at the end than what that hack Dr. Seuss came up with—and in the process make the Grinch pathetic and practically groveling. A line of dialogue about a tie he wears is particularly wince-inducing. Have some pride, man! The Grinch should not be pathetic.