On Gru rewritten as the Grinch, stasis and cynicism in modern animation, and how Illumination Entertainment stole Christmas
The Grinch Universal Pictures
Director: Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney
Screenplay: Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow, based on the book How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, by Dr. Seuss
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Cameron Seely, Kenan Thompson, Tristan O'Hare, Angela Lansbury and Pharrell Williams
Rated PG / 1 hour, 26 minutes / 2.35:1
November 9, 2018
(out of four)
It's not often you actually get a worst-case scenario from a movie. You might dread the worst-case scenario; you might have that vision in your head of every possible way an upcoming movie could go wrong, and every possible reason it's a terrible idea. And usually, once the movie finally arrives - even if it's lousy, even if you don't enjoy it for a second - it's not quite as terrible as you feared. Because how could it be.
So give The Grinch some credit here. It has pulled off a very rare accomplishment. It is every bit the soulless, witless, disingenuous, unimaginative, visually flat, utterly redundant, wholly cynical cash-grab you might have imagined when it was first announced. It is - and friends, I do not say this lightly - a worse film than that Jim Carrey / Ron Howard live-action monstrosity. There is no reason for this movie to exist. None.
Why, then, was this worst-case scenario awarded a whole entire star? The truth is, I can't entirely say. Giving it a zero-star rating just seems showy, doesn't it? Even a half-star makes too dramatic a statement - one this movie frankly doesn't deserve. A single star seems just right. After all, if it brought joy to some children who merely have the misfortune of having bad taste in animated entertainment, I suppose there are worse crimes. One star it is.
It's become a cliche, when it comes to filmmakers taking on an existing property, to throw around variations of the word "reimagine," mostly to put cynics' minds at ease about the purpose, or relevance, of a new adaptation. "This isn't really a remake, it's more of a reimagining." I don't have the energy to check, but I'm curious whether the filmmakers behind The Grinch made any statement to that effect when the project was first announced. If so, the final product is a laughable rebuke to that sentiment. Nothing has been reimagined - or imagined at all, for that matter. This is the exact same narrative, stretched from 26 minutes to 86, and it uses that extra time to give us a tour of the Grinch's not-so-humble abode at the peak of Mount Crumpit and a casual look at how he spends his days. We see such deeply important details as: the Grinch's morning routine; what the Grinch has in his cupboards and refrigerator; what the Grinch eats for breakfast, lunch and dinner; what kind of music the Grinch likes to play in his down time. Terrific. Important stuff.
To reach feature length, this Grinch retread was faced with two losing scenarios: 1) Retain the spareness of Dr. Seuss' pages and Chuck Jones' original televised adaptation, but drag the events out to triple the runtime; or 2) Expand the story with new characters and subplots and diversions and backstory. The filmmakers ultimately chose a lot from column A and little from column B. The movie isn't cluttered with an abundance of new material - a few side characters here and there, a couple of additions to existing storylines - but neither does it use its increased time wisely. Since it's rehashing something, beat by beat, that we've already seen delivered brilliantly in a crisp 26 minutes, it inevitably feels like a waste of time. I don't claim to know what the solution is (beyond "Don't make this movie in the first place"), but then again I shouldn't, and wouldn't, be the one to figure that out. It takes artists of bold and strange imagination to make bad ideas work.
But we didn't get that. We didn't get something bold or strange or unexpected. What we got was a Despicable Me movie with Whoville superimposed on top of it. That this film is a product of Illumination Entertainment - the same mediocre quality as DreamWorks and Blue Sky, but at discount prices! - only underlines the unavoidable similarity. When this Benedict Cumberbatch-voiced Grinch makes a begrudging visit into town and amuses himself with a series of mildly cruel actions against the good-natured folks of Whoville, the scene might as well be a collection of discarded ideas from the opening act of the first Despicable Me.
And just like that franchise, this movie doesn't really allow its villain to be much of a villain. He's casually rude, of course, and the whole "stealing Christmas" scheme is pretty villainous. But mostly The Grinch depicts him as a lonely grump who loves his dog and has, with depressing predictability, a sob story about a sad childhood that made him resent holiday cheer.
The digital animation does his villainy no favors, either. He's perilously close to warm and cuddly. The hand-drawn Grinch was a grand physical cluster of gnarls and knots; he slithered and snaked his way around, elastically contorting himself like a reanimated creature possessed by a demon. His smile did the rest of the work, revealing in those upturned lips every nasty thing in that two-sizes-too-small heart of his. There was such a sinister joy to his plotting and scheming, such visible satisfaction in his own wickedness.
Nothing in this computer-animated version can match that level of expressiveness. And, worse, no one even tries. The film gives us a version of the Grinch that's brighter, fluffier and softer, with all the edges and extreme angles sanded down. This speaks to the artistic bankruptcy and limited imagination of so much studio computer animation, which more often than not sacrifices personality and expressive visual logic for a style that's safe, streamlined and predictable. There's an implicit assumption that the technology used by modern animators is, in and of itself, an improvement over what came before it. The Grinch is, at least partially, a result of that assumption. Just as those equally corrupt Disney "live-action" adaptations of their own animated features - Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, Cinderella, The Lion King - is a result of an assumption that their existence is an improvement of some kind.
The Grinch certainly presents a more modern aesthetic. More in line with the visual expectations and cinematic grammar that contemporary audiences are accustomed to (for better or worse*). But I'm repeatedly struck by the lack of stylistic ambition in so many computer-animated releases. Movies like this don't actually take advantage of the benefits of computer animation. And in the case of a remake like this one, no one seems to be asking themselves what form this story would have taken if it had been invented today. And so "invention" never enters the equation. It becomes entirely a matter of transplantation.
Along with longtime animation veteran Yarrow Cheney, The Grinch was co-directed by Scott Mosier, Kevin Smith's long-time producer and podcast co-host. The same guy that's half-responsible for the material featured in Smith's most recent directorial efforts. What does The Grinch have to do with this? Well, it means Yoga Hosers is now only the second-most despicable thing to which Mosier has attached his name. Big day for Yoga Hosers.
At least that movie had some sort of claim to originality and unique voice - and thus value. But the world doesn't need this version of The Grinch. Movies would be healthier without it. It is as abhorrent and cynical as one could have expected, if not more so. Especially because most will probably just write it off as a frivolous, harmless redundancy instead of the symptom of a more infectious disease pervading modern storytelling, modern franchising and modern animation.