The best thing I can say about Illumination Entertainment movies at this point is that I know what to expect. The films never rise above mediocrity, they’re rarely clever or insightful, but they’re colorful, rely heavily on slapstick, and kids love them. Their latest film, Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch, is no different. Illumination knows their brand at this point, and that brand is relying heavily on comedy with a smidge of sentiment tossed in for resolution. It’s not that The Grinch is an awful movie as much as it’s simply straining to fill time, and while there’s some creativity in the production design and Benedict Cumberbatch does some really good voice work, ultimately you can’t help but feel like this is a bauble designed to distract children for an hour and a half.
Based on Seuss’ famous children’s book How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the story has been updated and expanded so that the Grinch (Cumberbatch) despises the happiness and warmth of Whoville and their Christmas celebration because of his own childhood trauma. He resolves that the only way to make his suffering stop is to steal Christmas, not so much because he wants to cause the people of Whoville pain, but simply to stop the pain he feels from not having Christmas as a child. Meanwhile, Whoville resident Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) is on a mission to capture Santa Claus so that she can ask him directly to give some help to her overworked mother Donna (Rashida Jones).
The two storylines actually offer up something interesting: in one, you have the Grinch who is kind of miserable for no reason. Yes, he had a depressing childhood, but as an adult, he’s now choosing to push other people away even though the Whos he encounters are nothing but nice to him. In the other, you have Donna, who has every reason to be miserable as a single parent raising three young children and working long shifts as a nurse, and instead she manages to stay positive and supportive. Naturally, Illumination doesn’t explore this juxtaposition because it would take time away from a fat reindeer eating whipped cream out of a can.
The heart of The Grinch is antics. It’s almost an episodic movie where every scene doesn’t feel all that necessary, but it moves the film closer to the finish line of being a feature. Do we really need to see The Grinch using a drone to do reconnaissance? Not really. Is a scene of Cindy Lou and her friends planning a snare trap for Santa essential? Of course not. These scenes don’t flesh out the story, but they allow for slapstick mayhem, and that’s why kids love what Illumination Entertainment brings to the table. It’s funny characters doing funny things in an easily accessible way. I’m not saying entertaining children is easy, and credit goes to Illumination for finding a reliable way to do it.
As I’ve said before (and will likely say again when reviewing Illumination movies), we know that family films can have it so much better. We know what that looks like, and while I’m not saying every animated family film has to rise to the level of Disney or Pixar’s Golden Age, it’s a shame that we don’t get something more with Illumination. They have reliable brands like Despicable Me, Minions, and The Secret Life of Pets to fall back on, so why not take some risks? Why not try to go for a more emotional story or something unusual? Instead, they just took one of Dr. Seuss’ most popular stories, stretched it out to feature length, and added a bunch of silly gags. It’s safe and it’s disposable.
I understand that for parents who are just looking for ways to keep their kids entertained, especially during the holidays, The Grinch is like water in the desert. Obviously, I’d much rather parents take their young ones to see something like The Grinch than Venom or Halloween, and the kids at my screening last night absolutely loved what Illumination had to offer. I just wish that the successful animation studio would do better by those children even if those kids don’t know to ask for something better in the first place.