Review: A Holiday Classic Gets Animated to Great Effect in Illumination’s The Grinch

My biggest issue with the 2000 Ron Howard-directed How the Grinch Stole Christmas was that, because so many of the effects were practical, much of the film is shot in shadow and darkness to hide some of the limitations of Rick Baker’s nevertheless extraordinary special effects makeup work. It doesn’t stop certain aspects of that film, most especially Jim Carrey's wild performance, from being exceptional, but there’s still something off about the whole deal.

But with The Grinch, this latest adaptation of the Dr. Seuss-written story, the full splendor of Whoville, especially decked out for Christmas, can be realized, as can the many variations of the residents, who aren’t quite human when you really start to look a them.

The Grinch Image courtesy of Illumination

This is the eighth feature from Illumination, the animation house that has given us the Despicable Me films, Minions, and the very popular The Secret Life of Pets (the sequel for which comes out in June 2019). Perhaps most importantly, Illumination also made the 2002 feature The Lorax, which isn’t a great film, but it does give you a clear sense that their style of animation seems particularly suited for the stories of Dr. Seuss. The have a talent for mixing photo-real images of nature with the fantastical and exaggerated aspects of some of Seuss’ best know works. The version of the Grinch we see here (voiced with the proper amount of oozing contempt and gleeful cruelty by Benedict Cumberbatch) is exactly how I remember him looking in the book, just three-dimensional.

The story is largely the same as the book, as well, fleshed out with a few more details so that the film hits the 90-minute mark (with credits). The Grinch lives with his loyal dog Max high up on snowy Mt. Crumpet, which overlooks Whoville, a town that worships Christmas like it’s the second coming or something, a fact that annoys and enrages the Grinch to such a degree that he decides he’s going to steal Christmas from the Whos. He devises a plan to not only steal presents from every house, but also every tree and all decorations from the entire town, by posing as Santa Claus and going house to house on Christmas Eve night. The film does attempt to give the Grinch a bit of backstory about why he’s grown to loathe Christmas, and I think it work, adding just enough depth to the character to set up the film’s emotional payoff.

But the Grinch is only half the story. The rest of the movie belongs to a young girl named Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), who lives with her single mother Donna Lou (Rashida Jones). Cindy Lou is a Christmas and winter sports enthusiast who sees Whoville as her personal sledding course. All she wants for Christmas is for her mom to be happy and not struggle so much to work and take care of her children, so she attempts to contact Santa to make her request. Thinking she’s missed her chance, she decides to set a trap for Santa so she can make her plea in person on Christmas Eve, and guess who she runs into?

Co-directed by Yarrow Cheney (one of the directors on Pets) and Scott Mosier (Kevin Smith’s regular producing partner), The Grinch has an energy and dedication to fill the screen with color and spectacle, and for a Christmas movie, that seems about right. The filmmakers introduce a few new elements to the classic story, including an expanded role for Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson), a Whoville resident who's adorably clueless, believing he and the Grinch are best friends to amusing ends. I also loved hearing Angela Lansbury’s voice as the Mayor of Whoville.

I was admittedly a bit baffled by other aspects of the movie, including having Pharrell be the narrator and some of the song choices, including a reworking of “You're a Mean One, Mr Grinch” by the film’s composer Danny Elfman that features Tyler, the Creator (?). At their worst, these are small distractions, but in some cases, these additions (especially a deeper look at the inner workings of the Grinch’s lair) are quite amusing and visually interesting. Much of the poetic voice of Dr. Seuss is left intact, and if you’re ever in doubt about certain diversions from the source material, just examine the screen. It will likely feature something so pleasing to the eyes that you’ll forget what it was that might have been eating at you in the first place. It’s not a work of genius, but it is one of the best things Illumination has been a part of in its filmmaking history. Let’s face it, it’s tough to mess up a classic.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.