The most surprising thing about the new animated adaptation of Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel's 1957 picture book How the Grinch Stole Christmas! - which, in keeping the the 21st Century's refusal to even pretend like any of us still has an attention span, has shortened the title to just The Grinch - is that it's not remotely as bad as it easily could have been. This is the ninth film released by Illumination Entertainment, after all, probably the worst of the major American animation studios.* It's also the fifth feature-length film adapted from Seuss's beloved canon, and it's not a collection of movies with a particularly admirable track record. Unbelievable shittiness was very much on the table, but The Grinch really only ends up landing at a sort of deep mediocrity that's no more than standard operating procedure for Illumination.

Plus, while The Grinch must compete with both Seuss's bright rhyming couplets and the magnificent 1966 TV special directed by Chuck Jones, the most immediate point of comparison is actually the 2000 How the Grinch Stole Christmas. And that is by no means a terribly difficult or daunting bar to overleap - not being one gaudiest, shittiest family films in living memory is all it takes, and The Grinch isn't even the worst animated feature of 2018. Which really wasn't a fait accompli, so let's thank the Lord for small favors.

Anyway, the film does share one particularly bleak point of distinction with the 2000 Grinch. Like that film, it retains the lines "The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season! / Now please, don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason", which is a much bigger deal here than there, given that it's one of only around a half-dozen or so couplets that the new screenplay by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow does take from Seuss. And despite this, it provides us with a very definite reason: when the furry green Grinch (voiced, with profound banality and lifelessness, by Benedict Cumberbatch) was a child in Whoville, he lived in the empty, cold-hearted orphanage. This was never good, but it was worst on Christmas Day, when he had to watch all the little Who children playing and having fun and being loved. And so he left town, heading to a cave on Mt. Crumpit, where he lived for the next 53 years hating the Whos and hating Christmas most of all, till the year that he finally decided to do something by ruining the Christmas celebrations of everybody else. Meanwhile, young Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) concocts a plan to trap Santa Claus: this involves a great deal of effort, screen time, and wholly disposable but vaguely colorful side characters, especially for a subplot that does so very little to add to the film's effect, or narrative.

This is tiresome. The great pleasure of the Seuss original is that Grinch is just an asshole: he's not reasonable, he's not a victim, he's not nursing some sad, painful backstory that just needs a kind gesture from a wide-eyed Who child to shift him around to feeling love for his fellow creatures. He's an asshole. But it's 2018, and it's a children's movie from the people who made Despicable Me and its sequels, and so a sad-sack Grinch who just wants to be loved it shall be. So, too, does the light-touch fabulistic quality of the original give way to a much more concrete, prosaically quotidian world: this Grinch is no weird outsider, he's just a guy, one who has to do his shopping in Whoville and is apparently known there, with nobody noticing his green fur nor his apparent nudity (in point of fact, this film's Grinch wears booty shorts the exact color and texture of his body; he does not obviously wear anything else). He even has a tediously gregarious neighbor, Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson, the obvious point of light and life in the cast), who thinks that they're good buddies.

This results in a dismayingly tamed, pedestrian fantasy world. It's colorful, which is nice, and the CGI surfaces are all extremely smooth and scrubbed, which is not at all nice; basically, it looks hollow and plastic, which is actually a legitimate disappointment. Illumination made The Lorax back in 2012, and if we absolutely have to pick a "best feature-length Seuss adaption" out of the sorry lot of candidates, I guess that's the one I'd pick, almost entirely on the back of its entirely lovely environments and color design. The Grinch is nowhere nearly that memorable, even I don't think I could name a single thing about it that's actually bad. It's just kind of... proficient. And even over-the-top gaudiness would at least be something, as opposed to the generic shiny flatness we're confronted with. The one thing a Seuss film should - must! - do is to provide a memorably weird world, and this simply doesn't do that.

In the absence of an interesting visual setting, all the film has to offer is its tepid, indifferntly-expanded plot. It's a whole lot of not-very-interesting scenes of the Grinch concocting his plan to steal Christmas, accompanied by the newly-written (and badly-rhyming) narration delivered by Illumination favorite Pharrell Williams, who sounds very distracted and sleepy throughout. Why oh why it was decided that we need lots of scenes of the Grinch scheming, plotting logistics, rehearsing his crime, and referring to a countdown timer, I cannot say, but it does feel in keeping with the studio's preoccupations: these are very plotty, "we have a plan and must execute it" movies, and that's worked for them so far, anyway.

What this means, of course, is that the film lacks Seuss's snide wit, which was mostly to be expected. It also lacks the warmth of his climax, though it comes closer than I would have supposed. The trite writing and disengaged vocal performances hobble it, but the moment in which the Grinch realises that the Whos are all full of love and caring is genuinely sweet - far more generous and kind-hearted than anything in the savage 2000 movie, at least. It's not much to hang a film on, and the bloated carcass surrounding the bones of Seuss's story is unlovely - but the bones are there, at least, and while I personally found The Grinch intensely flat and devoid of real emotion, I can at least imagine a sufficiently forgiving, or sufficiently young, viewer managing to find this all uplifting and rich and all that. And that's all a Christmas movie really needs, as much as I wish it had something actually good backing that up.




*A close race, but let us not forget that Blue Sky Studios made The Peanuts Movie.