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Illumination Casts its Trademarked Light on Another Classic

 

Illumination is a unique studio. They are, quite literally, the animation studio equivalent of King Midas. Everything they touch turns to gold. Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch is the studio’s 8th CG animated feature (9th if you include their only live-action hybrid, Hop) and just like 7 films preceding it, it managed to make a fortune.

It also has the distinction of being the second CG animated feature the studio produced based on a Dr. Seuss property; the first being 2012’s Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, which, despite an average score of 46/100, managed to turn its $70-million budget into $348.8-mill worldwide. Impressive for any studio but chump change to the guys who took in $1,159.4-billion on Minions alone.

The Grinch is arguably one of Dr. Seuss’ most celebrated and recognizable contributions to pop culture since the 1958 book How the Grinch Stole Christmas! was published. In the 60-years following, it earned a pair of popular motion picture adaptations – 1966’s hand-drawn animated TV special How The Grinch Stole Christmas and the 2000 live-action film starring Jim Carrey as the Grinch. As such Illumination’s 2018 effort represents the third incarnation of the original material and comes out of the gate with some pretty big shoes to fill given the fact that the prior editions (the 1966 version in particular) is widely regarded as a modern classic.

Illumination’s version was built on a budget of $75-million and managed to take in a global gross of $511.6-million, making it the highest grossing holiday film of all time (sorry Home Alone) not to mention the highest grossing Dr. Seuss adaptation of all time. Love em or loath em, Illumination’s perfect track record lives on.

The story, well if you’re one of the 12 citizens of the planet who doesn’t know it already, tells of the mythical town of Whoville, where little humanoids called Whos are amping up to celebrate the holidays much to the distress of a cantankerous, green-furred hermit named the Grinch, who dwells in a cave on top of Mount Crumpit, just north of Whoville.

Cindy Lou Who, a minor plot device in the source material, is a character given the Illumination backstory treatment here; a 6-year-old wide eyed child with a hardworking single-mother parent and a curly haired best friend hatch a scheme to stay up all night on Christmas Eve so as to catch Santa in the gift-delivering act.

As a result, she ends up instead catching the Grinch amid his most devious scheme: Stealing all of the presents under the Whoville trees so as to foil the residents’ celebration.

It’s a rather timeless tale of the true meaning of joy and one that retains some of the charm of the book/ original animation while blending a decidedly modern “Illumination” touch to the production. In some ways this is a triumphant tactic, in others it flounders a bit.

It begins with the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the Grinch. There’s no denying the actor’s talent but he brings to the character a subdued almost sympathetic tone that makes the final redemption somewhat less impactful when compared to earlier incarnations of the material. Additionally, because the Grinch feels more intelligent and less monstrous here, it makes his nastiness to the Whos feel especially cruel and calculated when compared to the over-exaggerated antics of years past.

Next comes the music selection. It is certainly appropriate enough, if a bit underwhelming given Illumination’s penchant for making their soundtracks nearly inescapable in society. Swapping out Thurl Ravenscroft’s “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” for a lethargic rap version by Tyler the Creator was another questionable decision; one that hopefully resulted from legal snafus rather than a stylistic choice.

Now for some positives, and they are many. The Grinch himself is retooled as mentioned above but some of the new depressive character’s moments benefit greatly from the transition. A scene where he plays Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” on his ridiculously overly complicated pipe organ comes to mind and another where he dons an 80s style workout suit while crafting his gift-stealing scheme. Additionally, and on a related note, his loyal dog Max receives much more attention in this incarnation as well, harkening back to some of the subtle moments of Illumination’s fellow hit series Secret Life of Pets.

All in all Illumination’s Grinch is a pretty solid viewing experience that would likely have favored even more positively had it been based on source material already not so beloved. The animation, texturing, acting and plotting are all spot-on, polished and feel like a well-oiled machine. Some of the pacing and plot points are a little askew when compared to the original (I found it odd that they decided to reveal the abnormally small size of the Grinch’s heart so early in the film) but in the end, it all comes together as it should. Perhaps its biggest crime comes simply from the fact that the versions that came before it are still held in such high esteem.

In the hierarchy of Grinch tales, I’d place this one firmly between the 1966 TV special and the 2000 overblown live-action version; perhaps leaning closer to the former than the latter. While it’s true the world really didn’t NEED another telling of this tale, at least having chosen Illumination to tell it meant the project was handled with competence. That it broke records financially isn’t all that despicable either.