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‘The Grinch’ a ho-hum holiday hater

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Let’s be honest – we probably didn’t need another movie about the Grinch.

There’s no disputing that the chartreuse Christmas-hater is one of the most memorable characters of the many created by Dr. Seuss. The book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” was instantly beloved upon its 1957 publication, of course. And the 1966 animated special of the same name – featuring the vocal talents of horror legend Boris Karloff as both the narrator and the Grinch – has been an iconic part of the holiday season for half a century. Even the inferior live-action version from 2000, directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Carrey, has developed an inexplicably affectionate following.

And yet, with all of that, we’ve still gotten another one.

“The Grinch” is different in that it features 3D animation, embracing the house style of producing studio Illumination (home to the “Despicable Me” franchise, among others); it’s Illumination’s second Seussian go-round after 2012’s “The Lorax.” But that’s more or less ALL that’s different; the film treads familiar territory, following in the footsteps of the films that came before. It’s all pleasant enough – and will undoubtedly crush at the holiday box office – but it doesn’t bring anything to the table that justifies revisiting an already-cherished tale.

This time around, Benedict Cumberbatch (TV’s “Patrick Melrose”) is the titular Grinch, living in lonely isolation in a cave outside the town of Whoville. Surrounded by Rube Goldberg-ian devices, the Grinch’s sole companion is his adorably devoted dog Max.

The Grinch hates when he’s forced to venture into town for supplies because he’s quite set in his misanthropic ways. He particularly hates it during the holiday season, because he (and his two-sizes-too-small heart) LOATHES Christmas. And Whoville, well … Whoville is all about Christmas. The Whos love Christmas to an obsessive degree (for real – it’s borderline unsettling if you think about it too much), converting their entire town into a Yuletide love letter.

The Grinch hates it so much, in fact, that he decides to devote his considerable resources to stealing Christmas from Whoville.

Meanwhile, a young Who named Cindy-Lou (Cameron Seely, “The Greatest Showman”) is gearing up for Christmas herself. She wants to ask Santa Claus to do something nice for her hard-working mother Donna (Rashida Jones, “Tag”), so she decides to assemble her friends and put together a plot to capture Santa so she can ask him herself.

And then, well … the Grinch steals Christmas. You know that. You knew it before you started reading this review. Everyone knew it before they even sat down in the movie theater. We all know the story.

“The Grinch” isn’t a bad movie. It’s a perfectly adequate piece of animated entertainment. Kids are going to be delighted by it and parents will largely manage to minimize their eyerolls. It’s competently made and visually engaging.

And yet … there’s no soul to it. There’s nothing about it that really captures the wonderfully weird spirit of the source material. There’s a genericity to the movie that makes the whole thing feel flat and disengaged. It’s forgettable in a way that previous incarnations of the story simply weren’t.

There are a few added elements in this version – a large gormless reindeer that teams with Max for some decent sight gags, a disconcertingly bleak childhood backstory for the Grinch, the aforementioned subplot featuring Cindy-Lou’s buddies – but they feel like window dressing, inconsequential add-ons that don’t change the fundamental sameness of the story.

Even with these issues, however, it’s tough to deny that kids are going to dig it. The folks at Illumination are smart, capable filmmakers; they know exactly how to construct a film that will appeal to their target audience. There are a few jokes that land solidly and enough all-around goofiness to keep viewers entertained enough.

Cumberbatch is a suitably grouchy Grinch, busting out his affectless American accent more effectively than even his turn as Dr. Strange. There’s a smug self-satisfaction there that certainly fits. Seely is a garrulous Cindy-Lou, attacking every moment with infectious enthusiasm. Jones is just fine as Donna, though there’s admittedly not a lot there. Supporting roles are voiced by the familiar tones of performers like Kenan Thompson (who adapts his standard ebullient old-man character wonderfully as self-styled Grinch BFF Mr. Bricklebaum) and the inimitable Angela Lansbury as Whoville’s Mayor McGerkle. Pharell Williams makes for a good-enough narrator; he’s not particularly exciting, but nor is he a distraction.

(It’s at this point that I’m going to point out the aspect of “The Grinch” that was my personal favorite. The Grinch lives alone in a massive cave with a companion who both fixes his breakfast and assists in his schemes. He has a tragic backstory. He has access to nigh-limitless resources and the ability to develop astonishing and effective technology. At least in this version, there’s an argument to be made that the Grinch is Batman – an argument I am happy to make.)

“The Grinch” isn’t a bad movie, but neither is it a necessary one. While it probably leapfrogs the middling live-action effort of two decades ago, it can’t compare with the classic original. That being said, it will almost certainly become a beloved holiday movie for the current generation of young moviegoers. And that’s OK – he might not be the Grinch we deserve, but he’s the one we need right now.

[3.5 out of 5]

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