‘The Grinch’ plot is two sizes too small

The News-Times - - DIVERSIONS - By Peter Hart­laub phart­laub@sfchron­i­cle.com

The Grinch Rated: PG for brief rude hu­mor. Run­ning time: 86 min­utes. 66 out of 4

“The Grinch” is a film for movie­go­ers who liked “How the Grinch Stole Christ­mas!” but walked away from the clas­sic 1966 TV spe­cial think­ing, “that could have used some hip-hop mu­sic, and a more sym­pa­thetic Grinch.”

And more char­ac­ters. The com­puter-an­i­mated up­date pads the nar­ra­tive with sev­eral new peo­ple and an­i­mal creations that are re­dun­dant to the story. “The Grinch” is a movie that can fill up the toy shelves, even as it in­sists in con­tin­u­ing the orig­i­nal mes­sage that Christ­mas is in your heart.

The sar­cas­tic com­ments mostly end there. The mak­ers of “Min­ions” and the “De­spi­ca­ble Me” movies find a con­sis­tent off­beat hu­mor in the adap­ta­tion, while re­tain­ing the sneaky emo­tional core. Ef­fort and creative en­ergy are vis­i­ble from be­gin­ning to end. But the new film high­lights the great­est prob­lem of any big-screen Seuss reimag­i­na­tion: It’s very hard to turn this 69-page pic­ture book into a 90-minute movie.

“The Grinch” is based on the 1957 Dr. Suess book “How the Grinch Stole Christ­mas!,” still a clas­sic, and ar­guably the best chil­dren’s book from the author born Theodor Geisel. That was fol­lowed by the even-more-beloved hol­i­day tele­vi­sion spe­cial, di­rected by an­i­ma­tion mas­ter Chuck Jones, with Boris Karloff voic­ing the Grinch. It re­tained the look and the po­etic pac­ing of the book, adding a clas­sic sound­track and even more soul.

“The Grinch” colors out­side the lines from the be­gin­ning, show­ing us de­tail far be­yond the Seuss mythol­ogy. Some of this is quite in­spired. The town of Whoville be­comes even more idyl­lic, with snow­ball-mak­ing ma­chines and a sense of geo­graph­i­cal depth that is one of the wel­come ad­di­tions to to the story. “Grinch” co-di­rec­tor Yar­row Cheney was a pro­duc­tion de­signer on the first two “De­spi­ca­ble Me” movies, and his eye for de­tail (with co-di­rec­tor Scott Mosier) is a con­sis­tent as­set.

But there are strange de­vi­a­tions. Orig­i­nal Dr. Seuss char­ac­ter Cindy Lou Who now has a friend cir­cle and an over­worked sin­gle mother (voiced by Rashida Jones), whose prob­lems feel like an odd mod­ern dis­trac­tion to the cen­tral sto­ry­line. The Grinch now has a neigh­bor named Brick­el­baum, voiced by Ke­nan Thomp­son, who of­fers lit­tle be­yond the sight gag of his ob­ses­sively dec­o­rated house.

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch voices The Grinch, and he seems like a safe and solid choice; the ac­tor’s ster­ling voice-over his­tory in­cludes the dragon Smaug from the re­cent “Hob­bit” movies. But he adopts a nasal qual­ity, paired with a script that of­fers ex­cuses for The Grinch’s be­hav­ior. Once a cold-hearted grouch, he comes across as more of a whiner.

Danny Elf­man scores the film, bring­ing a wel­come “The Night­mare Be­fore Christ­mas” vibe to the pro­ceed­ings, es­pe­cially in the in­ven­tive and mu­sic-heavy scenes where the Grinch steals the presents and other signs of Christ­mas from the sleep­ing Who­vians. Tyler the Cre­ator of­fers a new hiphop in­fused ver­sion of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and a new song for the film.

Like al­most ev­ery­thing else in “The Grinch,” it’s not ter­ri­ble. But it’s not nec­es­sary ei­ther. This is a film that will en­ter­tain a few chil­dren, sat­isfy a few adults with low ex­pec­ta­tions, then quickly be for­got­ten.

Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures / As­so­ci­ated Press

Brick­le­baum, voiced by Ke­nan Thomp­son, left, and the Grinch, voiced by Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch, in a scene from “The Grinch.”

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