Dr. Seuss’ “The Grinch” was tailor-made for Chris Meledandri and his subversive Illumination Entertainment, where grumpy social misfits find a family or community to heal their isolation and loneliness. And what better way to counter Trump than with the spreading of Seussian kindness and joy?
For directors Scott Mosier (producer of Kevin Smith’s “Clerks,” “Mallrats,” and “Chasing Amy”) and Yarrow Cheney (Illumination’s production designer), tackling the Grinch (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) began with deconstructing Theodor Geisel’s iconic drawings, creating a backstory, expanding the quaint town of Whoville, and making him relevant to our polarizing times.
“We wanted to understand why the Grinch stole Christmas?,” Mosier said. “What happened in his past that caused his isolation and loneliness gave him a deeper emotional arc for updating and modernizing this movie. His feeling about the Whos and who they are starts to define him. And he has this very specific idea about the town, but suddenly he meets Cindy Lou [Cameron Seely], who is the exact opposite of his expectations.” Her wish for Santa to make her overworked mom (Rashinda Jones) happy “shakes him out of his worldview.”
Photo Credit: Illumination and U
Yet finding the right tone was tricky. They didn’t want the Grinch to be too embittered. Much like Steve Carell’s Gru from the “Despicable Me” franchise, they made him a mischievous loner who’s adept at making cunning gadgets. “We needed to get on his side to enjoy the Grinchiness,” added Cheney. “He’s such a fun, subversive character, but we needed him to drop his defenses and hold out his hand and become part of the community.”
Cumberbatch was brought in early to help develop his interpretation of the Grinch, who wants to steal Christmas in order to stop the loud singing and holiday merriment. “When he came in one day early on and [nailed] the line, ‘I’m going to steal their Christmas,’ he found the voice, and we did an animation test and went from there,” Mosier said.
Adapting the look of the towering, green Grinch in CG was an essential part of the deconstruction of Geisel’s pen and ink drawings. His pear shaped outline was reinforced by the elegant flow to his lines and poses. “So what we wanted to do is support what we did in every detail and make it it more tactile and hyper-real,” said Cheney. “But when we added fur, we wanted it to be reflective of those pen lines. That iconic tuft of hair on top was very difficult to get right, to feel natural.”
Photo Credit: Illumination and U
Whoville, meanwhile, was expanded into a colorful winter wonderland that’s warm and curvaceous, with finely textured snow and bright lights. The challenge was pulling off the heist. How would Illumination steal Christmas?
“We made it this big, bustling town and didn’t want it to be easy on the Grinch to steal all their toys,” added Mosier. “It was a wonderful opportunity to jump in and figure out how he could pull it off in one night. We leaned into the idea that he builds things and has big ideas.”
Illumination outfitted the Grinch’s sleigh with great powers and tricked out his candy cane into a Swiss army knife kind of contraption: “It can fly, it can shoot nets, and is a long range grabber for presents,” Cheney said. With Max, the dog, serving as his butler, the Grinch ingeniously strips the lights off 200 houses and slides down chimneys to steal the presents with a flourish. Gru would be proud.