Movies

Movie Review

Now he’s not quite such a mean one, that Mr. Grinch

Benedict Cumberbatch voices the Grinch in “The Grinch.”
Illumination and Universal Studios
Benedict Cumberbatch voices the Grinch in “The Grinch.”

Some might say a reviewer would have to be, well, a Grinch to be down on the new animated feature “The Grinch,” particularly when the movie comes from Illumination Entertainment, the curmudgeonly-antihero auteurs behind “Despicable Me.” But that was before Illumination redefined the name Grinch to mean, apparently, a secret softie with a sad backstory who’s conflicted almost from the start about his Christmas misdeeds.

The result is a reworking that feels both unnecessary and uninspired, even if it’s too genial and visually captivating to be flat-out off-putting. A rationale for making Jim Carrey’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000) was, of course, to see the characters rendered in live-action (which sure backfired for — oof! — those creepy Whos). Here, it’s to see animators behind those feature versions of “Horton Hears a Who!” (2008) and “The Lorax” (2012) put another contemporary spin on Dr. Seuss — but this time, their sharp adaptation instincts fail them.

Even Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting leaves us asking what the point was. The Grinch’s misanthropy ought to be a perfect fit, given how terrifically withering Cumberbatch is in the BBC’s “Sherlock.” But not only is his incarnation situationally not quite the Mean One of the classic Chuck Jones cartoon (1966), the movie also has him playing the character with a light (American) tone that doesn’t approach Boris Karloff’s grouchy gravitas. And, curiously, some of the funniest bits — a standoff between the Grinch and relentlessly cheery carolers, the Grinch playing lonelyheart ballads on a gigantic Seussian organ — are purely sight gags, no Benedict required.

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In another makeover, Cindy-Lou Who (Cameron Seely) morphs from doe-eyed into spunky Action Grrrl (awesome for 3-D inner-tubin’ down Mount Crumpit!) with a night-nurse single mom (Rashida Jones) and an intricate Santa-related scheme of her own. Generically cute enough, but the story’s purely original touches hold more interest. Kenan Thompson steals some scenes as an extra-furry, extra-exuberant, ugly-sweatered Whoville denizen. And the Grinch’s recruitment of a portly reindeer named Fred is another entertaining add, especially once we know this isn’t just some PETA-mindful bone being tossed to his sleigh-schlepping pooch, Max.

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Go-to Illumination vocal talent Pharrell Williams, meanwhile, is the movie’s serviceable narrator, despite hitting the same mid-range notes as Cumberbatch. Maybe the “Happy” multi-hyphenate should also have tackled the story’s signature tune, which gets a remix from rapper Tyler, the Creator and Danny Elfman that triggers painful flashbacks to MC Hammer and “Addams Groove.” Advising folks not to touch all this with a 39½-foot pole would be hyperbole — but don’t expect this to be the start of your family’s newest holiday viewing tradition, either.

THE GRINCH

Directed by Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney. Written by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow, based on the book by Dr. Seuss. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Cameron Seely, Pharrell Williams. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 90 minutes. PG (brief rude humor).

Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.