I wish to Blitzen Universal would leave “The Grinch” alone.
The 1966 TV special was compact perfection, a minor masterpiece to remember legendary animation director Chuck Jones by. You’re never going to improve on having Boris Karloff as your kindly-spooky-sweet narrator or Thurl Ravenscroft’s bone-tingling crooning of “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch,” by composer Eugene Poddany.
But “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” isn’t just a short film (based on a beloved book) American families are tickled and touched to the point of tears by every holiday season. It’s a property, part of a brand. And Universal has every right to try and wring more money and improvements to its theme park Seuss attraction out of the green furball every few years.
They go back to animation for this latest incarnation, a bright and shiny toddler-aimed bauble with slapstick gags, more characters, more “acting” than storytelling, updated rhymes to the songs and no emotional connection whatsoever.
It’s perfectly passable as eye candy and children’s entertainment, so long as you’re sure they have no memory of the Chuck Jones original. This one’s heart is three sizes too small.
Critics can embrace it as that rare chance to chew on Benedict Cumberbatch a bit. Brother Brit took a paycheck here and in a rare bad career move, has nothing to give to the part.
His Grinch has “Garlic in your soul,” but a more-explored connection to Who-Ville. He showers, dashes on a splash of Cold Spice and goes shopping there — even though it’s the holidays, because he’s eaten up all the food in the cave-home he shares with his puppy Max.
“How much emotional eating have I been DOING?”
This Grinch has an alleged friend (not reciprocated) down in Who-Ville. He’s voiced by “Saturday Night Live” mainstay Kenan Thompson.
And the new Grinch has a back story, a little Dickensian motivation for why he hates Christmas. Adults always inferred that in earlier versions, and kids who’d seen “A Christmas Carol” could make the same Scrooge connection that Dr. Seuss did all those decades ago. But here, let’s spell it out for everybody.
Who-Ville is a veritable gingerbread castle of a town, presided over by Mayor Angela Lansbury, who has decreed that this Christmas has to be “Three Times” bigger and better than the last.
And little Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) is a sassy, sledding bundle of rambunctious wonder who needs to get an audience with Santa because she’s worried her single mom/working mother (Rashida Jones), a nurse, needs a break and won’t get one in the gig economy.
You know the rest, the story arc from “a heart, two sizes too small” has to be moved from cynicism over the grinding commercialism of the holidays to embrace “the True Meaning of Christmas,” thanks to the Whos’ devotion and unshaken faith.
Because, you know, he’s stolen everything Xmas related in that mission to “stop Christmas from COMING.”
A novel approach — The Grinch’s mathematical and technological way of ripping off every house in Who-Ville (he counts them, counts the hours he has to pull off the heist, etc.), The gadgets he and Max employ are Seussian whimsy incarnate.
Cute touches — having Thompson’s character introduced as he offhandedly sings “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” from the “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer” Rankin/Bass TV special of the ’60s, letting The Grinch work out his loneliness at a Seussian pipe organ pumping out “All By Myself.”
There’s enough Christian Christmas music in this version to warm an icy Megan Kelly heart.
The Whos have their own expletives when The Grinch knocks over their snowmen or swipes that last jar of Who chutney from the grocery.
The updating of the narration works — “Safe in his cave and apart from the fray, he reminded himself ‘It is better this way.” But having Pharrell Williams narrate and sing the beat-boxed update of “You’re a Mean One” won’t warm anybody’s cockles.
It would have improved the film to ignore market research and hire grumbling, bemused and singing (sometimes) baritone Keith David to take over the storytelling narration. Williams is too light and ordinary sounding to make the “storyteller” work.
But this “Grinch” isn’t about aesthetics or shelf-life or making anything memorable, something Universal has managed with recent “Horton Hears a Who” and “Lorax” adaptations.
It’s as forgettable as the torn wrapping paper piled around the tree 15 minutes into Christmas morning.
MPAA Rating: PG for brief rude humor
Cast: The voices of Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson, Cameron Seely and Pharrell Williams
Running time: 1:26