Prematurely Christmassy – and I don’t mean that in a Grinchy way – Illumination’s take on “How The Grinch Stole Christmas!” is as warm and sweet and comforting as a hot mug of cocoa that’s mostly marshmallow. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it definitely feels like this is a movie that will find its real home on home video next Christmas rather than unceremoniously dumped in early November where it’s left looking longingly at the distant, cosily festive light of December, much the same way its title character regards the town of Whoville from afar.
As the bustling, happy town of Whoville busies itself preparing for Christmas, The Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is preparing for his own tradition: a holiday hibernation, shut away from all the jollity. But when he realises he’s already eaten all of his food and needs to visit Whoville for supplies, he’s finds he has to face the festivities after all. But the goodwill and peace on earth prove too much and so The Grinch hatches a plan: to steal Christmas.
The film is supported by a short starring Illumination’s brand mascots The Minions but its so basic it serves mainly to put you in a suitably Grinchy mood before the main feature begins. Dr Seuss’ original work is actually quite brief and short on side plots and additional details so this animated offering – like the 2000 live-action movie – finds ways to embellish and expand the story. Both offer an insight into The Grinch’s childhood loneliness to provide some motive for his Christmas cantankery, but this animated offering also adds in a side plot involving a rotund comedy reindeer called Fred and opts to give Cindy Loo-Who (Cameron Seely) much more agency than before, giving her a parallel plot of trying to make a Christmas wish for her mother come true.
A big difference here is that this incarnation of The Grinch is immediately more sympathetic than any we’ve seen before. His mean-spiritedness is clearly conflicted, with numerous indications that he’s not the mean and nasty creature of previous versions. His dog Max, for example, is clearly loved and loves The Grinch in return and while he’s not the kindest of friends, The Grinch has friends in Whoville and he’s not the ostracised ne’er-do-well of other adaptations.
It’s exactly what you would expect, though, from Illumination, whose family-friendly animated offerings often skew young and cutesy and when it comes to that target audience, this film plays like gangbusters. Not to say there’s not enough here to keep Mums and Dads happy too, with enough amusing set pieces and appealing animation to keep you from being bored. Besides the original book, it’s probably my favourite interpretation of the story thanks to an amiable performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and the warm and fuzzy (in a good way) animation.