Huh. Okay…I think I can live with this. I think.
So if you don’t know what’s happening (and c’mon, how could you NOT know what’s happening after a disturbingly high number of advertisements?), The Grinch came and went, and well…the results are pretty much fine. The film succeeded in its purpose of being better than the 2000 film in both critical and financial performance. And while that’s great, how great is it really? The film may have achieved its goal, but it hasn’t really made much of an effort to outpace the live-action film on an impressive scale. And between this and the oversaturated marketing, it hadn’t occurred to me until recently that this was actually very predictable because of two factors: Illumination Entertainment, which I didn’t really place that much of an emphasis on before, and believe it or not, Audrey Geisel to some extent.
And while some of you may be cheering over this revelation I’ve made about Illumination, what I mean about Geisel may have to be made a bit more clear. But either way, it’s time to discuss the problem of why the Grinch didn’t stink, stank, stunk too badly.
The Critical Response
When I first saw the film get 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, I was relieved but also disappointed. While it beat the 53% rating of the 2000 film, it was nowhere near the 79% rating of Horton Hears a Who!, which is pretty much where the bar has been set for modern Dr. Seuss adaptations and the highest I expected the rating to go. Though even if this was the case, I knew that many Dr. Seuss purists still wouldn’t have it, so that was certainly out the window. The critical consensus was pretty reassuring, though:
The Grinch gives the classic Seuss source material a brightly animated update that’s solidly suitable for younger viewers without adding substantially to the story’s legacy.
The rating fluctuated as more reviews got posted, and in the down-up-down way, making me nervous that it would still end up objectively worse than the live-action film. But much to my relief, its final rating hit 57%, eclipsing the rating of the last cinematic outing by quite a small margin. But did we even need that cause for concern to start with? Why did the initial rating leave much to be desired? Even though the film wasn’t meant to challenge the 1966 original in any way, the overwhelming comparisons to the original special suggests that the bar should’ve been set higher to get just a little more respect.
The Financial Performance (So Far)
C’mon, this is Illumination we’re talking about! You tell me how it performed. It obviously won its opening weekend with $67 million, surpassing the high end of expectations and successfully beating the $55 million opening of the 2000 film. It understandably fell to second in its second weekend with the arrival of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, even with the high amount of bad press for a Harry Potter-set movie. Still, the film is pretty likely to out-gross the live-action film, which is pretty great. However, this all falls with line with Illumination’s business model: okay films making the money typically expected of great films.
And what do I mean, exactly?
The Film Itself
Just like I did for Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, I’m only going to give minor spoilers of the movie, as I mainly want to discuss the things about the film that made it an improvement over the 2000 film, weaker than the 1966 special, and true to the original book. You also know the story of the Grinch already, so there’s that. When it comes to children’s picture books, their generally short length usually makes them hard to translate to film, which is a particularly evident issue with modern Dr. Seuss films. The Grinch is very conscious of this, making sure to avoid repeating the mistakes of the live-action film by keeping additions to the story to a minimum, and placing more of an emphasis on what was already there. While the film works in taking this approach, it falls flat doing so, so I guess you can say we were both right in many ways in my first Dr. Seuss post back in February.
While Benedict Cumberbatch’s simpler Grinch is an improvement over Jim Carrey’s complicated version, he’s a bit of a far cry from Boris Karloff’s version in many ways. The biggest problem is his origin story and how it affects his character, despite the fact that it’s far simpler than the one in the live-action film. It’s a shame as I wanted it to work because of this, but I have realized that it doesn’t because of the angle they went with the simplicity. The character is mean because he finds it annoying that the Whos only care about materialism and the commercialization of Christmas. He doesn’t know what love is because he never saw the Whos display it until he was about to dump their things. He’s the kind of character that we love to hate; we empathize with him in spite of him stealing Christmas because he forces us to see our wrongdoing during the holidays. He makes us realize that we need to love one another, so he can stop his heist and let Christmas continue on, but with us remembering the true meaning of the holidays.
Here, the angle of tragedy still makes us empathize with the Grinch, but in a different way that makes you want to love to only love him. His character changes from one that has never seen love to one who wants to be loved. He ends up stealing Christmas not because he wants to get rid of the festivities but because he wants to receive the love he almost got all those years ago. It’s a different interpretation that still works, but not as well as the traditional version envisioned by Seuss because it doesn’t make the Grinch as mean as he is supposed to be. While an origin was never necessary to extend the story (or anything else, to be fair), Illumination was on the right track, but they didn’t quite hit it. A more ideal origin story would be to explain his hatred of materialism, rather than focusing on his potential for love.
Not helping this is the fact that little else is done with the Grinch’s character outside of this origin story. The film partly fills in its runtime by dragging out parts of the book that don’t progress the story, and tries to fill in these voids with humor and action in its attempt to still deliver to the audience. Illumination is particularly experienced in this so-called storytelling tactic, and because of this, it works, but not entirely. The jokes are funny but not funny enough, and the characters’ actions are interesting but not interesting enough. The Grinch is the focus of many of these dragged out scenes, which largely lack the character development needed to help him grow in his meanness as the film progresses. Even when his character develops, the narrator is often telling us what he does, rather than letting the Grinch show his actions to the viewer. Sure, they’re taking lines straight from the book, but the film relies a bit too much on them.
Another issue concerns the Grinch’s appearance. When looking at his appearance in the book, the original special, Jim Carrey’s version or even the drawing shown here, there was always this idea of the Grinch looking ugly or creepy in his appearance; the lyrics of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” really say it all. Here, you still get negative vibes from the Grinch, but they’re just not strong enough. He doesn’t look mean, he just looks grumpy at best, and out of it at his worst. It’s all consistent with the toned-down meanness he expresses in the movie. It probably doesn’t help that Illumination isn’t very great at designing creepiness, with cute characters being their strong suit. Even so, their original design for the Grinch was still better than what they ultimately went with. On the plus side, at least he eventually did ditch the beard of his Santa outfit, so there’s that.
Max also could’ve been designed better, looking as if Illumination recycled some assets from The Secret Life of Pets to design him. He’s also even more loyal to the Grinch than he is in previous versions, though this might be due to the fact that the Grinch is a lot kinder to him as well. While it might be a welcome change, the context behind the change isn’t, as since this Grinch is searching for love, he is trying to find it in Max. Had the origin been different, it would’ve been a lot more interesting if the Grinch gradually acted crueler to Max as he became more villainous (but never quite reaching the abuse in the original special), before realizing that his relationship with Max was the closest thing to love he ever experienced once he saw it from the Whos.
Ironically, some of the other characters get more attention than the Grinch himself, with Cindy Lou Who being among them, likely to handle her subplot properly. Sadly, it ended up being an addition to the story that didn’t work, with the plan to trap Santa Claus having little reason to be there. She has four friends in this version who help her in the scheme, but they have just as little of a reason to be there because of their role. However, her motivations are respectable, and her character is quite likeable. I admit to having cared with Cindy as she cared about her mother. Not to mention that her design is nothing short of perfection, though this makes sense as Illumination knows how to design cute characters as I said earlier. They must’ve been proud with what they did with her, so it makes sense why she was held back in all the marketing.
As for Fred, I was pretty surprised with what they did with him. I had expected them to give Fred a little too much screen time in order to help stretch the runtime, but they were actually cautious about this and kept his time on screen to a minimum. While that’s respectable, they got a little too cautious, as Fred ended up having less screen time than I expected. I considered the possibility that given Fred’s weight and his tendency for food, they were going to do something interesting with his gluttony and make him another symbol of materialism, which is part of the reason why the Grinch would ditch him. But he ditches him instead for reasons that make sense given the Grinch’s origin story, which again stems back to the problem of the origin. It’s a shame that Fred wasn’t more layered, but at least he comes back towards the end in a pretty neat role, even if it downplays the Grinch’s own role in the same scene.
What they did with Bricklebaum was interesting at first. He employs the two-sides-of-the-same-coin trope as a Who that is similar to the Grinch in many ways, except that he is as nice as the Grinch is mean. He is able to relate to the Grinch, which thus gives him the drive to help get the Grinch out of his mood and into the spirit of the holidays. There was something happening there, but the film sadly didn’t delve into it. It would’ve been amazing if it was Bricklebaum who led the Whos in their singing at the end, but he only serves to give the Grinch a sleigh to steal later on, leaving much of his character to be desired.
With the relatively poor time given to the Grinch, the film even goes so far as to ultimately give less time to scenes as important as the Grinch’s actual heist, which is quite disappointing considering that the heist is a core aspect of the story. Now visually speaking, the film is stunning in both its Christmas and Seussian aesthetic, from its presentation of Whoville to the quirks of the Grinch’s gadgets and gizmos. Thanks to this, the heist is still very entertaining to watch even with the relatively short time it gets. And while the ending is sweet and lacks many of the film’s other problems, those who aren’t thrilled with the movie’s issues probably wouldn’t be that into it by that point anyway.
Ultimately, The Grinch is a mixed bag, but it’s a pretty decent mixed bag of stolen goods. It knew it couldn’t be better than the original special, but also knew it had to atone for the crimes of the live-action film. It succeeds in finding a proper middle ground between the two, but it’s problem is that it aims for the lower middle ground, and isn’t particularly invested in going a little higher up the literary Mount Crumpit. It will definitely find a place in the hearts of a new generation of Dr. Seuss fans but will likely turn off seasoned fans, especially the purists. And while the children will smile, I’m sure that the seasoned fans would have liked it if their smiles were just a little bit bigger.
The Final Verdict and The Future
First, let’s rejoice: the days of Universal-produced Dr. Seuss films are officially over. It may be old news, but it couldn’t be more relevant that the rights to the World of Dr. Seuss have now been transferred to Warner Bros. For eighteen long years, Universal has proven that they couldn’t pass a pop quiz on Seuss’s characters if it meant their studio burning down, and have made the poor guy turn in his grave once or twice or a million times over. Further supporting this argument is Horton Hears a Who!, a Fox production and the best modern Dr. Seuss adaptation, which Seuss purists can only nitpick for issues. And while the Warner Bros. deal is great, it’s perplexing how Audrey Geisel didn’t make the deal earlier, instead choosing to stick with Universal for future animated adaptations. And she certainly paid the price, given that Universal gave Illumination control of The Lorax and The Grinch, and the status quo surely would have persisted for the Cat in the Hat remake, which now thanks to this deal has far greater (and MUCH deserved) promise than The Grinch did.
But why did Illumination put only half the effort into The Grinch, doing nothing more than fixing the mistakes of the 2000 film and calling it a day? And the answer to that lies in their business model. As I said earlier, Illumination has a philosophy of making films that are so okay they’re good. For example, The Secret Life of Pets, as good as it is, is accused of being a ripoff of the Toy Story films. And Sing is the exact same case, a good film that’s still a mashup of unoriginal concepts. They like making films that push the bar as low as possible for what makes a good film, allowing them to get away with small budgets and oversaturated marketing campaigns. The Grinch not only has a smaller budget than Horton Hears a Who!, but more money was spent on the film’s marketing than the actual film itself, which is insane.
These marketing campaigns go just about everywhere, and because of this, the context of some advertisements can even hurt the film itself, turning people off and undoing the whole point of the marketing. Consider how the Lorax apparently speaks for the trees and the Mazda SUV’s. Or the Grinch’s DNA kit for 23andMe, making positive light of a brain full of spiders, those termites in his smile, and a heart that’s a dead tomato. Or how the gaming world clearly deserved that false leak for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. 😜
And it works. The film is just good enough with what they used to produce it. The marketing forces you to get farther interested in seeing a product that will just suffice, which guarantees serious profit. It’s a very lucrative but also incredibly unprofessional tactic. The Despicable Me films are a prime example of sequel rot, yet they are among the most profitable films Universal has ever produced. And while success is success, this makes it all the less encouraging for Illumination to take risks and set the bar as high as the rest of the studios. Budgets are important to the quality of a film, and it’s telling that Illumination doesn’t try to improve their films with all the money that they’ve made.
And while Illumination is a party to blame for The Grinch being a subpar film, we can’t forget about the circumstances that led to the film prior to their involvement. We must remember that Dr. Seuss didn’t even want full-length feature film adaptations of his works in the first place, because like I said earlier, he knew that the short length of picture books usually make them hard to translate to film. So it’s very likely that he wouldn’t even be thrilled with Horton Hears a Who!, let alone the Cat in the Hat film, but the less that’s said about what he’d think of that film, the better. Yet after his death, Audrey Geisel took control of his rights and went ahead with the initial deal with Universal to make a profit off her husband’s properties, which isn’t the happiest thing I’ve ever heard.
As wrong as that feels though, you can’t help but to think that this was nonetheless inevitable. Dr. Seuss is arguably the most iconic children’s picture book author of all time, and even if he had a point about his work, it’s just too iconic to not get the movie treatment. Because of this, I feel like Warner Bros. has to find middle ground going forward. The first obvious thing to consider is shortening the runtime of these films as much as possible while still technically qualifying as a full-length feature film. Other factors include doing basically everything Illumination doesn’t, such as higher budgets and less marketing. Finally, Warner Bros. needs to figure out what it is about previous modern Dr. Seuss films that worked and didn’t work so they can focus on what did work, and to also figure out what it is about the films made during Seuss’s lifetime that worked and only worked. If all this is achieved, only then will the future be truly bright for the World of Dr. Seuss, and right now, I’m very optimistic.
By the way, now that it’s December, things are going to start looking pretty weird for Ellen DeGeneres if there are no updates on the Green Eggs and Ham television series for Netflix before the end of the month, no? 😏