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‘The Grinch’ Review: Benedict Cumberbatch’s Relatable Misanthrope Lifts this Competent Version of a Dr. Seuss Classic

Illumination Entertainment's latest garish animated offering might be commercial and grating, but with a beloved Dr. Seuss story to guide it, the new "Grinch" can still warm hearts.

"The Grinch"

“The Grinch”

This critic hated “The Grinch” for almost its entire duration, he sighed and he cried and he dreamed of vacation. It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right. It could be, perhaps, the midterm polls were too tight. But it seems the most likely reason of all, may simply have been that he was not in its thrall. The animation is ugly, and the jokes sure are stale. From the moment it started, he wanted to bail. It’s not as if the people who gave the world “Minions” could possibly still care about a grown man’s opinions. But at the end of the day, Dr. Seuss still delivers. Even manufactured kindness is enough to send shivers.

Illumination Entertainment makes movies for bored children and desperate parents. From “Despicable Me” to “Sing,” the company’s garish, manic, and comfortably mediocre products look and feel like the cinematic equivalent of “Candy Crush” — they’re designed for no other purpose than to sedate your kids, pass your time, and pick your pocket. “The Grinch,” despite the pedigree of its beloved source material, is no exception.

If “The Grinch” is the best movie that Illumination Entertainment has made thus far, that’s because it’s based on one of the most iconic kids stories ever told. And if “The Grinch” is also the most damning movie that Illumination has made thus far, that’s because it’s based on one of the most iconic kids stories ever told. On the one hand, Dr. Seuss’ holiday fable is so pure and simple that no one could ruin it completely, and there’s no denying its latest adaptation is cute and inclusive in all the right places. On the other hand, Dr. Seuss’ yuletide classic is too pure and simple to support an entire feature — there’s a reason why the cherished 1966 television special is only 26 minutes long — and this updated version has no clue how to fill the extra time.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Technically, the film has a number of different ideas about how to pad out the plot, it’s just that all of them are so half-baked that they just sort of mush together into a dry clump of holiday cheer. The gist, of course, is still the same: Somewhere in the heart of a snowy valley sits a village called Whoville — imagine a gingerbread house in the shape of Bruegel’s “The Tower of Babel” — where the locals takes the spirit of Christmas very, very seriously. It’s unclear if these people have even heard of Jesus, or if they’re just really into singing carols and stringing lights, but there’s no doubt that December 25th is everyone’s favorite day of the year. Almost everyone, that is. Because in his mountain lair above Whoville, hidden from the sun, lives a feathered green meanie who can’t stand all the fun.

Introduced against the backdrop of a somnambulant Tyler the Creator rap that clashes against the character’s hyperactive animation (“All them smiles homie, I turn ’em to frowns / All them decorations, I tear ’em down”), the Grinch has been rebooted as a sour — but not altogether sinister — misanthrope who’s equal parts bully and Batman. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose strongest inspiration for the character seems to have been a sinus infection, this Grinch is a bit softer than what you might expect (and not only because Illumination has done such a fine job of detailing his pea-colored pelt).

The Grinch is a jerk, to be sure, but this time around he’s more of a curmudgeon than he is a monster; it isn’t nice to knock over a kid’s snowman, or place a can of ingredients on a supermarket shelf that’s too high for an elderly shopper to reach, but it’s not like he’s trying to repeal Whoville healthcare or anything. He’s also a mechanical genius who’s managed to refashion Mt. Crumpit into a veritable Xanadu full of Rube Goldberg-like contraptions, lined with books, and built around a dining room table that may have stolen from Charles Foster Kane. His eyes aren’t red, his smile isn’t sadistic, and his loyal dog Max has never been cuter (bland adorability is an Illumination speciality).

Whereas Boris Karloff’s version was rotten to its core, and Jim Carrey’s feral take on the character was unleaded nightmare fuel, this Grinch just wants to play with his pet and curl up with a book. Other than his desire to steal everyone’s presents and throw them off a cliff, he’s… actually pretty relatable?

It’s the Whos down in Whoville who have all lost their minds, from the mayor (Angela Lansbury!) to the mothers who are stuck in their grinds. While the indefatigably jolly Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson) represents the average citizen, and epitomizes why the Grinch can’t stand them, poor Donna Lou Who (Rashida Jones) is an overworked single parent with three kids and no time for herself. Lucky for Donna, little Cindy (Cameron Seely) has a plan: She’s gonna ask Santa to help give mom a hand. But who comes down the chimney when her plan is in range? Why, he looks like St. Nick, but he sounds like Steve Strange.

So that’s enough story for about half-an-hour, which leaves way too much time for things to go sour. Servicably co-directed by Scott Mosier (best known for being Kevin Smith’s go-to producer) and animation guru Yarrow Cheney (“The Secret Life of Pets”), “The Grinch” always keeps the colors bright and the camera moving in order to maintain the illusion of life, while the graphics — still generic and desperately missing a human touch — are textured enough to make the film stand out from Illumination’s previous eyesores.

It’s the feeble script by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow that never lets us forget how low the bar has been set for such family entertainment. Actual jokes are few and far between, though kids will surely get a kick out of all the comic violence the Grinch is forced to endure (the degree of suffering on display is somewhere between “Home Alone” and “The Passion of the Christ”). But somehow, the few gags that don’t involve the Grinch getting beaten within an inch of his life are even more painful. There’s a screaming goat and an obese reindeer (both introduced like major characters before the movie promptly forgets about them), a bit where the Grinch pounds out a rendition of “All By Myself” on his massive organ (mercifully not a euphemism), and — wait for it — a doggy dream sequence in which Max rides in a convertible while rocking out to “Mambo #5,” a godforsaken song that the film’s young audience could have gone their entire lives without hearing if not for Illumination’s characteristic unwillingness to actually work for a laugh.

And yet, for a cynical movie that so transparently reheats an old classic for a new generation of paying customers, “The Grinch” more or less does the trick. The actual Christmas Eve robbery is an energetic heist that’s full of clever little flourishes, as the Grinch deploys an arsenal of ninja-like tools to hit every house in Whoville in the span of one night. And while Cindy isn’t much of a character, she nevertheless fulfills her purpose. Bad as this movie can be, there are far worse things in our world than a story about the value of love and kindness, and the joy of sharing those things with those who may never have known them before (kudos to Cumberbatch, who sells the climactic transformation). Dr. Seuss might do most of the heavy lifting here, but it’s hard to harbor any real hatred for such an undeniable pick-me-up.

Grade: C-

Universal Pictures will release “The Grinch” in theaters on Friday, November 9.

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