What could be more derivative than making a third screen adaptation in 60 years of a children’s book no thicker than a drink coaster? Add a subplot straight out of a Hallmark Christmas Movie about a painfully precocious moppet scheming to snare Santa Claus when he stops by her house on Christmas Eve so that she can request special yuletide help for her overworked single mom.
Some hard-working cable TV actress and her pint-size counterpart will miss out on playing those roles because “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch,” the latest adaptation of Theodor Geisel’s classic 1957 picture book, is the latest high-gloss 3-D computer-animated flick from “Minions”-makers Illumination Entertainment.
Of course, the tale of the grumpy Grinch who steals the holiday treasure from the noisily jolly denizens of Whoville but then has a triple-size change of heart has already been made into a beloved 1966 animated TV special by Looney Tunes mastermind Chuck Jones and gravel-voiced narrator Boris Karloff as well as a reasonably likeable 2000 live-action feature helmed by Ron Howard and propelled by an in-his-prime Jim Carrey, who keeps his Grinch a little grouchy and grimy even after his heart grows three sizes.
Like Illumination’s similarly frenetic titles “Despicable Me 3,” “Sing” and Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” the latest iteration of the “The Grinch” fills the holes in its latest release’s slight runtime with straight-from-YouTube jokes (enter the screaming goat), endearingly roly-poly animals (enter the rotund reindeer Fred) and elaborately eye-popping contraptions (enter the Grinch as a quirky inventor with his faithful dog Max as the Gromit to his bad-tempered Wallace, just to detail another derivative aspect to this adaptation).
Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch voices the titular curmudgeon with less of the sinister intensity of his Smaug or Shere Khan and more the “generic American” derision of his Dr. Strange (thankfully, he doesn’t mangle another Oklahoma accent ala “August: Osage County”; my deep and abiding love of Cumberbatch’s work can only take so much terrible drawling). His Grinch is cleaner, shinier and more petulant than a “Mean One,” a neon-hued man-child with boyhood trauma who is less righteously angry by Christmas hullabaloo or the Whos’ single-minded indulgence in it than just determined to make everyone as miserable at the holidays as he is.
The latest version of “The Grinch” boasts plenty of colorful slapstick to divert preschoolers for 90 minutes, its ultimate message that love and kindness are the best kind of holiday gifts is noble, and it’s not the worst way to turn children on to the essential writings of Dr. Seuss (2003’s “The Cat in the Hat” will likely remain undefeated in this category).
With the dull narration by “Happy” hitmaker Pharrell Williams and Cumberbatch’s milquetoast Grinch setting the tone, though, there’s not enough conflict and too much filler in this tale.