Universal Studios has set this movie up for failure among critics by launching a marketing campaign that feels like they had a bunch of slogans for a second wave of Grumpy Cat ads that never came to be and just slapped the Grinch’s face on it. Yesterday I enjoyed a stack of green pancakes while sitting in the shade of an Ihop window vinyl with the words “I’m not impressed” next to that smarmy looking green fuck.
The next day I was crying over a nice thing that smarmy green fuck did in his movie, so there’s that.
I walked into a screening of Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch expecting a quirky forgettable regurgitation of the book that serves more as a cash grab with tons of merch and product tie-ins to rake in some extra cash for Illumination and Universal Studios. And, yes, that’s basically what they’ve done mere moments after Halloween is over. Between months of special bumpers for AMC movies and the same crap teaser trailer played ad naseum we got that in a way. But the actual movie itself, fortunately, delivers a refreshingly modern re-telling of a Dr. Seuss tale featuring a relatable Grinch whose biggest enemy isn’t Christmas but his own anxiety.
Illumination haven’t just retold the story from the book with some extra plot added in to pad for run-time (I’m looking at you, Ron Howard), they broadened the Grinch into a likeable, smart character. He’s a grumpy dude, but at the end of the day he’s fine hanging out in his cave home with his dog Max.
Much in the same way the Grinch constantly tries to escape having Christmas shoved down his throat, I developed a visceral reaction to that damn teaser of him walking through a Who Foods (get it?! It’s a real thing but with Who in the name!!1!). I went from “oh look, a Grinch remake, whatever” to ranting about Illumination’s farting out an animated movie with a famous person playing the lead character just in time to rake in easy merchandising and holiday cash.
The movie I sat down to see was so much bigger, so much better than what the trailers sold it as. I would even go as far as to say, and be ready to clutch your pearls my fellow millennials, this is a significantly better movie than the 2000 Jim Carrey adaptation. I shall now spend the rest of this review explaining myself to those who just scoffed at the screen.
The original animated Grinch was literally the book but animated. 20 minutes of The Grinch being a big jerk to anyone who likes Christmas because that’s just how it is. The Grinch hates Christmas and his heart is too small. Dude then mass-robs Whoville of anything Christmas related in an attempt to steal the holiday. Once he’s shown Christmas is actually about standing outside singing fah-who-foraze he realizes the error of his ways, realizes Christmas is actually about togetherness, and returns all of the gifts/decorations.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Grinch is a different roast beast entirely. Even before his character arc regarding Christmas we’re shown he’s a genuinely good person. The Grinch is a snarky bitch, yes, but when push comes to shove he’s a loving pet owner and genuinely cares for Max. For once the addition of a sentient but not verbal cartoon dog character is a legitimate plot choice for a kid’s movie.
Max’s relationship to the Grinch basically exists to remind the audience “he’s a good dude deep down” as they live a chill life up in his mountain lair. Each morning is punctuated by Max using cool Seussian contraptions to make a cup of coffee and ride a dumbwaiter up to Grinch’s bedroom.
The first moment that really sells this as “not your momma’s Grinch” is the inciting incident itself. The Grinch doesn’t go down to Whoville to be a dick to Whos for the pleasure of it (unlike Jim Carrey’s pot-stirring in 2000), he wakes up one morning to find his pantry is empty. The Grinch bought enough food to last into January so he and Max could basically avoid Whoville during Christmas madness. Why is it empty? The Grinch quips “how much have I been depression-eating?” followed by a Family-Guy style flashback to several nights of him shoveling food into his mouth with a sad look in his eyes that was a smidge too real for my tastes.
I’m sure the depression eating joke could come off as a cheap, senseless joke on paper but consider this: the movie spends a not insignificant amount of time showing us Grinch legit has anxiety issues. He talks himself into certain viewpoints about how the world works based on those unchecked anxieties. He hates Christmas because of one particularly traumatic Christmas as an orphan child. Things he’s worked up into his head to be huge deals that mean everything, more often than not, aren’t that bad when exposed to other people.
It’s not the most psychologically complex plot in the world, but for a holiday movie it’s leagues beyond anything I’ve seen in the past. The word anxiety isn’t spoken once but it’s there.
When we aren’t following the Grinch we’re following Cindy-Lou Who, a precocious Who child who has a badass multi-tasking hard-working single mom. Her one wish for Christmas is for Santa to do something to make her mom happy because “she deserves it.” This escalates to the point where she sets a trap for Santa so she can talk to him in person (guess who she catches instead). The scene also demonstrates something we don’t see a lot in remakes: restraint. We get the perfect setup for that classic scene from both previous iterations of the story: Grinch pretending to be Santa says “there’s a light on this tree that won’t light on one side.”
Cumbergrinch paraphrases that, the line’s more awkward and unconvincing than before. The original scene is Grinch, asshole he is, pretending to be Santa like a con artist fooling a small child. This Grinch is terrified he’s going to get busted, Cindy-Lou has the upper hand in this scene but since she’s been told nobody has ever actually seen Santa she has no reason to question why he looks like the Grinch in a half-decent Santa costume.
I spent a lot of the movie getting preemptively angry that the payoff of this wish was Grinch and her mom would end up dating, because movies seem to think all single moms are just waiting for The Right Guy. Spoiler: that’s not what happens.
The Grinch is taken aback by her request, doubling down on the idea that everyone’s favorite part of Christmas is presents. Cindy-Lou then says her favorite part is when the town all come together to sing on Christmas day. “If you close your eyes and really listen it pushes all of the sadness out of you.”
That sticks with Grinch. It’s not just something for the audience to put in their pocket, he’s immediately affected by this. “I just met the strangest little Who-girl…” Thus when we get to the climactic scene of him standing on the clifftop about to destroy all of the presents, he pauses. He takes her advice, he listens to the singing for the first time. It’s not just The Power of Christmas Saves The Grinch, his redemption arc is based off him being an inherently good person who’s built up some fucked up worldviews.
I’m not impressed by a character who’s mean for mean sake being magically fixed by Christmas so damn cool. I am impressed by a character who is shown their interpretation of a thing is skewed because of personal bias and actively changes their attitude because of it.
[This is the part where I legit start spoiling the movie so if you don’t want that, I liked the movie see you next time]
The ending of the movie isn’t him riding into town with the sleigh and is immediately forgiven. He parks the sleigh, meekly apologizes, and walks home while a confused crowd stares at him.
Back at the cave Max barks playfully, Grinch waves him off saying “Not now, I need to be alone.” Moments later the bell rings signalling Max to make a cup of coffee and bring it up the dumbwaiter to the bedroom, except when Max walks up to the dumbwaiter it comes down from the bedroom with a green squeaky dog toy with a red ribbon wrapped around it. The camera cuts to show the Grinch is standing in the doorway. “I thought you might like it. Merry Christmas.”
This is when I started crying with a good 10-ish minutes left in the movie.
Dr Seuss’s The Grinch is not a perfect movie. It’s slathered with the usual hetero-normative “family means everything” nuclear family schmaltz that every holiday movie seems contractually obligated to have. We’ve gotten to a point where a holiday movie featuring a single mother who 1: doesn’t have some traumatizing backstory, 2: isn’t struggling to keep her life together without A Man, and 3: doesn’t end with The One Who Completes Her by the end of the movie feels progressive.
I wouldn’t even argue it’s in the top five Christmas movies ever, but it’s a delightfully 2018 update to a classic story. Yes, Minons are a yellow plague upon this earth that Illumination wrought. Yes, there are insufferable tie-ins and ad campaigns that run one’s idea of the movie into the dirt before even considering buying a ticket. The marketing, just like every other Illumination movie, has been omnipresent and obnoxious.
This doesn’t change the fact that Illumination movies have the humor and story to back up that kind of marketing. I’m sick of The Grinch’s marketing, I walked into this screening planning out the quirky headline joke I would use for my ultra-negative review. I was expecting to have a blast making puns and tearing this stupid kids movie limb from limb, working out real-life problems by tearing a big Hollywood movie limb from limb like scores of people already have… but I also kinda wanna go see it again right now. That’s the biggest compliment I can give The Grinch.