For a film that’s ostensibly about a person who hates Christmas with such a ferociously ill-tempered passion that he steals it away from everyone else, The Grinch wears its Christmas-loving heart very much on its tinseled sleeve.
Which really makes perfect sense since at heart The Grinch, like Charles Dickens’ immortal classic A Christmas Carol, is a redemptive tale that needs to show you the wonders of what is being spurned in order for protagonist’s arc from festive hater to lover make any sense of it all, and for it to truly affect us.
Drawn, of course, from The Grinch by Dr Seuss, this Michael LeSieur & Tommy Swerdlow-written and Scott Mosier & Yarrow Cheney-directed animated tale from the people who gave you the Minions and The Secret Life of Pets is a brilliantly-colourful delight from start to finish.
A tad more substantial in its execution that many of Illumination’s efforts – they are always highly-enjoyable but feel a little slight next to their more ambitious Pixar counterparts – The Grinch is packed to the brim not simply with the expected road to Damascus moment for our titular protagonist/antagonist but with a wittily-intelligent sensibility that goes to great lengths to flesh out its characters in a way that really hasn’t been done before.
The Grinch (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) for instance is mean; that’s a given, true, but in this take on Dr Seuss’s timeless tale of festive darkness redeemed, he is far more well-rounded a figure than you might expect.
Quite a bit of time is given over to the Grinch’s home life, with faithful dog Max (Frank Welker) seeing to his every whim with Wallace and Gromet-esque interventions, ornately-Seussian radio alarm clocks belligerently continuing to play Christmas carols even after falling from a great height and insight, rather comically-delivered, into the Grinch’s penchant for grocery cupboard-emptying emotional eating.
It’s largely light and fun and not as dark as you might be expecting, which will no doubt lead to charges that Illumination has served a lighter, kindlier Grinch even before Whoville works its transformative charm on him, but it works because rather than being some empty trope, the villain of the piece feels quite three-dimensional.
Well, as 3D as a cartoon character in an animated movie can get, anyway.
We are even shown why he is so full of hatred for a season that many people, including the Christmas-obsessed citizens of Whoville, regard as the most wonderful time of the year.
The scene where his lament over his empty, dark and cold, Christmas-less orphanage upbringing unfolds is actually pretty touching; although it does beg the question why the seemingly good and kind people of Whoville, who celebrate Christmas anyway in song even without their sumptuous decorations, trees and presents, didn’t bother to bring their relentlessly bright and cheery Christmas outlook to those with no one to do it for them.
It’s a minor quibble but pertinent since The Grinch goes to a great deal of trouble to frame the Whovillians, especially Cindy Lou (Cameron Seely), her adorably upbeat mother Donna (Rashida Jones) and unflappably-cheery Whoville citizen Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson) as the very essence of Christmas selflessness, it’s an odd moment of discord in a film that is all about bringing people into the fold.
And what a fold it is.
Visually, Whoville looks simply spectacular.
There is no other word for the way the film brings the Christmas-saturated town to life; everywhere you look there are red and green wreaths, multi-coloured lights without number, stores selling everything from gaily-decorated miniature Christmas trees to peppermint bread and delicious sausages, mice skating on candy canes and the world’s tallest tree which is decorated in a ceremony where each family of the town brings a handmade decoration of some kind.
If you’re a Christmas junkie, then Whoville is the town you will want to move to, drenched in colour, light, bonhomie and good chair, a cascading surge of festive happiness and decorative charm that is excessive in one sense but looks absolutely perfect in every possible way.
You would have to be, well let’s face it, a Grinch not to want to wallow in the brilliantly-colorful spectacle before you, which acts as both as a repellent to the actual Grinch and then a siren song of redemptive possibilities.
There are some delightful Seussian touches as well such as the triple decker bus that can be boarded on three playfully, idiosyncratically-designed platforms, multi-seat toboggans that make commuting look like more fun than it has any right to be and stores that sell everything you could possibly want in a way that makes retail fun again.
The great narrative driver in the film, as in Dr Seuss’s rhyming classic, is the relationship between Cindy Lou and the Grinch, one that comes about through the former’s obsession with capturing and talking to Santa, a quest that is, rather ironically, only launched after the Grinch rather grinch-ily questions whether the jolly man in fur-trimmed red suit actually exists at all.
Despite being saccharine-sweet wonderful and virtuous in all her ways, Cindy Lou is never nauseatingly-twee or over-the-top too much; The Grinch manages, as it does with the titular character himself, to strike just the right balance so that neither character is a problem to spend too much time with.
The only fly in this festive ointment is how quickly the Grinch changes from a saboteur of Christmas to its most ardent proponent – quite the achievement given how much the good carol-singing people of Whoville are into the festive season – but even that is forgivable given the time and effort that goes into realising the mean green man as a fully-fleshed out character whose motivations feel very human and true.
Honestly, you would have to have a heart of blackened concrete not to be swept up in the technicolour wonder and vivacity of The Grinch, which has a lot of fun telling its tale, from the shimmering colour and splendour of Whoville to the warmth and kindness (orphans excepted obviously) of its citizens to the robust balance between oneliners and slapstick (screaming goats!) and a heart as big as, well, the Grinch once he responds to the kindness and non-judgement of dear sweet Cindy Lou Who.
If you’re looking for a Christmas pick-up this season, and it can be needed even by the most eggnog-suffused of us, The Grinch is your ticket to the perfect celebration, a dream concoction of colour, wit, intelligence and good old escapist fun, that puts a delightful new twist on Seuss while evoking everything we love about the timeless tale we love from a man who reminded us in rhythmically-playful poetry what really matters at this time of the year.