Eastwood’s conceptions of heroism and villainy have always been, if not endlessly complex, at least never simplistic.
Two of the most beloved Christmas stories are about characters who—at least at the beginning of the story—hate Christmas. Charles Dickens gave us Ebenezer Scrooge, who calls Christmas a fraud until the ghosts show him Christmas past, present, and future to show him what he has missed by hardening his heart to friends, family, and kindness. And Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) gave us the Grinch, a furry green character with a dog named Max, who hates Christmas so much he decides to spoil the celebration of everyone in the community of Whoville by stealing all of their decorations, food, and gifts.
An instant classic since its publication in 1958, the book inspired an award-winning Chuck Jones animated television special starring Boris Karloff, then an overstuffed 2000 live-action feature film starring Jim Carrey in the title role, and now a very watch-worthy full-length animated theatrical release from the people behind “Despicable Me,” with Benedict Cumberbatch (using an American accent) as the Grinch. It does not surpass the Chuck Jones version (or having the book read aloud by a parent, which is still ideal) but it is far superior to the Carrey film and should become a welcome family tradition.
The visuals are delightfully Seussian, all curves and slants. I loved the mitten-shaped windows on one of the houses and the way that Whoville’s Christmas decorations make it look like a captivatingly intricate gingerbread village. In contrast, the Grinch’s mountain top lair is bare and cavernous, empty and solitary, far from the warmth of the Whovian homes.
We really do not need a backstory to tell us how the Grinch got so Grinch-y that he wants to steal all the decorations and gifts or why Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) was awake on Christmas Eve. But feature-length movies are longer than Dr. Seuss poems, so we get a flashback to the young Grinch’s lonely holidays in an orphanage. In the book, two-year-old Cindy Lou gets up for a glass of water but here the elementary-school-age Cindy Lou wants to make sure she sees Santa on Christmas Eve because she wants to ask him for something very special. It is special because it is not for herself but for her loving yet exhausted mom (Rashida Jones).
While this is not especially inventive, there are some clever parallels as the Grinch and Cindy Lou each have to come up with a plan for Christmas Eve. They write out their schemes with the same two words alone on a huge surface: “Santa Claus.” And both must assemble helpers and equipment without anyone finding out.
The smaller details are the most fun, especially when the Grinch brings on an enormous, yak-looking reindeer named Fred to pull his fake Santa sleigh. Or when a relentlessly cheery Whovian (Kenan Thompson) with the fanciest Christmas decorations in town keeps insisting that he and the Grinch are best friends.
We see the Grinch wake up in the morning for his breakfast, which includes a latte with a frowny face in the foam, prepared by his ever-loyal dog, Max. He then selects one from a rack of outfits labeled according to mood: “Wretched,” “Miserable,” “Very Miserable,” “Nasty,” and “Grumpy.” They are in fact all exactly alike and indistinguishable from his actual skin and fur. All the gadgets and equipment the Grinch creates are delightfully clever, the action scenes are energetic and funny, and the music, with a score by Danny Elfman and some standards and fresh and tuneful renditions of holiday classics, is superb, with a gorgeous Pentatonix rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and Tyler the Creator’s brightly updated version of Thurl Ravenscroft’s classic “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The message that Christmas is not about presents and candy canes but about kindness and being together is always welcome. And when the Grinch gets invited to dinner with Cindy Lou’s family, you may find your heart growing a couple of sizes, too.
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