“Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” (2018) movie review

Seuss’ beloved Christmas classic gets a brightly animated treatment. Universal and Illumination Entertainment’s The Grinch starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the furry green Christmas-hater with a loyal dog named Max. Dr. Seuss’ works are no strangers to screen adaptations. Many of his books have been adapted to animated successful TV specials and movies, including my favorite adaptation How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). We have the original award-winning 1966 version narrated by Boris Karloff and animated by Chuck Jones, the moderately entertaining live-action 2000 version, and the one we are reviewing today, a truly watch-worthy feature-length animated feature that has the soul of the original with some heartwarming additions. Needless to say, as much as there is to like about this new version, it does not rise to the same level as the Jones’ original, but is certainly superior to the Jim Carrey version. In addition to the main plot points from the book, this film takes some creative liberties to introduce new scenes and provide additional character development for the Grinch, Cindi Lou Who, and Cindi’s mom. Much like with the previous feature length animated and live-action films, this one too contains the quintessential Seussian architecture that lacks any straight lines (incidentally, this same concept is embraced at Seuss Landing at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure). From the top of Mount Crumpit to Whoville town square, if you are a fan of the book and original, then you will certainly enjoy this one and may even add it to your holidays this season. Oh yeah, Angela Lansbury has a cameo as the Whoville mayor!

Ordinarily this is where I summarize the plot, but we all know the story, so let’s jump right into this particular version. Arguably, two of the greatest, profound, and most celebrated Christmas stories feature a central character who hates Christmas; of course, one is an old British miser and the other is furry and green. Collectively, Charles Dickens’ Scrooge from A Christmas Carol and Dr. Seuss’ Grinch from How he Grinch Stole Christmas confront the commercialism, greed, loneliness, and the results of hardening one’s heart to friends, family, and the spirit of generosity. Themes that are just as relevant today as they were when first penned. The plots are so simple, yet so incredibly profound and inspirational. Both these stories benefit from simple plots and complex characters. Many of us have been either a Grinch or a Scrooge in our lives, or perhaps you know of one now; and it’s because of the relatability that we can identify with the characters. Taking the tentpole elements of the original animated version and adding a modern touch, 2018’s The Grinch seeks to capture the imagination of young audiences but concurrently providing a wonderful experience for adult audiences too.

One of the most memorable elements in the production design of the original animated classic is the stark contrast between the warm Whovillian homes and the cold, dankness of the Grinch’s lair. One is full of smiling faces while the other is solitary. Anyone who’s read Dr. Seuss’ books notices that there is something incredibly unique to his designs. As pointed out in the opening remarks, there are no straight lines anywhere in a Seuss book or even at Seuss Landing at Islands of Adventure. While this may not seem like a big deal–it is. Truly, it’s one of the illustrated elements that gives the images their trademark look. I greatly appreciate the Illumination Entertainment artists for successfully carrying this over to the film. Even down to the drinking glasses, there are no straight lines anywhere to be found. Another highlight from the original is the music! More specifically, the songs. Instead of simply including the original songs in this feature length adaptation, they were reimagined for a new generation. Although I feel You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch suffered in the translation, the rest of the songs worked really well, and were a lot of fun! In addition to songs inspired by the original, there are song numbers integrated that you may recognize from today’s Christmas music. The new number that was the most fun was the Whovillian Christmas carolers played by Pentatonix singing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Not just the song itself, but the choreography of that number was perfect! It combined the stereotypical “annoying caroler” trope with slapstick comedy in a chase scene of sorts.

Because of the feature length runtime of the movie, the writers have the ability to provide subtext that is often more difficult in short films. Not that the original is lacking–certainly not–that’s why it stands the test of time and continues to be adored by millions. Chuck Jones’ animated masterpiece is still teaching us today. That being said, with the additional storytelling time, we learn a bit more about the Grinch and Cindy Lou’s parallels to one another. Both of them have a stated mission and external goal at Christmas. The Grinch wants to steel Christmas away disguised as Santa Claus, and Cindy Lou wants to capture Santa in order to give her mom a Christmas well-deserved since she is a single mother raising a family. Giving and steeling Christmas. That contrast provides a lot of opportunity to play around with the meaning and value of Christmas to the hopeful and the jaded. Both the Grinch and Cindy Lou start their missions with the same two words: Santa Claus. But what they do with those words couldn’t be more polar opposite than the North and South Poles. Further parallels between these two iconic characters is the method executed to achieve their respective goals. Both of them plan and assemble a team, equipment, and traps without anyone finding out. And like each other, both are successful at achieving their goal. The Grinch does steel (what he thinks is) Christmas and Cindy Lou does capture (whom she thinks is) Santa Claus. It’s that chance encounter between faux Santa and Cindy Lou that alters the course of the evening and Christmas morning. Two completely separate plans intersecting in providence that teaches that Christmas “doesn’t come from a store…maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

Much like with the live-action version, we have new characters introduced in this one too. However, the focus is never off primarily the Grinch followed by Cindy Lou. It’s important to note that keeping your central and opposition characters the focus enables the internal needs and external goals to be developed more effectively than shifting focus between too many characters and subplots. Speaking of which, who are the central and opposition characters? Contrary to the “good guy” being the typical protagonist and the “bad guy” being the typical antagonist, this story flips that script and it works beautifully! In The Grinch, the Grinch is our central character and Cindy Lou is actually the character of opposition. The “good guy” is not always your central character. The Grinch has the external goal to steel Christmas from Whoville accompanied by the internal need to make other suffer as he has; opposing his goal is Cindy Lou who also had her own set of internal and external goals. But in this story, the character opposing the central character’s goal/need is actually the “good guy.” Interesting stuff, right?!? Think of main characters in terms of central and opposition, not protagonist and antagonist.

Outside of the Grinch and Cindy Lou, there are important supporting players. Our favorite dog is back, and endearing as ever! Max is even given a bit more screen time and substance in this version. He is truly the Grinch’s only friend, and although gets taken advantaged of, it’s clear that the Grinch does care for him. There is a story of loyalty here, and it’s an element that cannot be overlooked. If the Grinch was completely evil, then Max would likely not stay with him. So, the fact that Max remains by his master’s side teaches us that there must be some good in the Grinch somewhere. We are told that his heart is two sizes too small–not non-existent. How’s about that character of Fred?!? I fell in love with him instantly. Fred, the plus-sized reindeer, plays an important role in the story that I cannot go into without revealing a spoiler. However, I can tell you that he is adorable; and he, Max, and the Grinch form a non-traditional family that works incredibly well in this film and plays into the Grinch realizing that there is value in love, friendship, and community.

Perhaps this animated feature is not as magical as the original; but you now what, it is still incredibly well directed, written, acted, and animated. I am someone who watches the original every year and even have the book. Still, I am able to find tremendous value in this version, and will likely add it to the list of movies that I watch every November and December. There is something for everyone in this movie, and you may even find your heart growing three sizes as a result of this new take on the timeless charming tale of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Echoing the end of Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, what does Christmas mean to you? What would you say if the Grinch asked you?

Merry Christmas!

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“The Secret Life of Pets” movie review

SecretLifePetsWhen well-developed setups lead to brilliantly executed gags, throw in some adorable house pets and endearing street animals and you get Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment’s answer to what toys do when the owners aren’t around, The Secret Life of Pets. More precisely, this movie could be described as Toy Story meets Oliver and Company meets Homeward Bound. Backed by an exquisitely talented cast of voice actors and excellent writing, The Secret Life of Pets could be what ushers Illumination Entertainment (an NBCU company) into the ring with Disney-Pixar. Prior to this movie, Illumination/Universal certainly created some fantastic animated films including The LoraxDespicable Me, and others; but this film is the first to really be on par with the Disney-Pixar quality that many of us have come to love and expect. Fast-paced and comedically timed very well, this movie is sure to entertain and warm the hearts of anyone who sits down to watch it. Is it quite as endearing as Toy Story? Not exactly; but it is very close and serves as evidence that we should come to expect this quality and higher of animation from Universal/Illumination. Although the movie is marketed to kids and teenagers, there is certainly enough comedic subtext, easter eggs, and nods to films that adults will greatly appreciate as well. One of my personal favorites is in the Millions short film before the feature. One of the minions is wearing a hat that states “let it grow” while he’s cutting the grass.

When Max (Louis C.K.), a spoiled terrier living in a New York City apartment building with a beautiful view meets his new roommate, his perfect world is rocked. New roommate Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a giant rambunctious dog, mixes as well with Max as oil does with water. They are complete opposites in nearly every way. Max soon gets the idea to set Duke up for failure by sabotaging the house. Unfortunately that idea backfires and just serves to stoke the fire of animosity. After a prank in the park takes a turn for the worst, both Max and Duke are lost in the seedy underbelly of New York City. One step forward and two steps back is exactly the pace of the journey home for both canines. Following a run-in with a street gang led by the ferocious but cute bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart), Max and Duke find themselves in Brooklyn after escaping the hoard of animals bent on their destruction. Along the journey home, Max and Duke are forced to work together and support one another in order to have any hope of returning to their comfy apartment.

The Secret Life of Pets‘ success is in-part due to the successful setup and payoff of gags. This can be a dangerous platform on which to build an animated comedy because there is a high risk of the narrative primarily resting upon the gags instead of the gags enhancing the diegesis. Fortunately for audiences, this film successfully pairs a well-developed and paced narrative that will keep your attention and deliver laughs for the entire runtime. Sometimes comedies, whether animated or live action, can spend too much time in the development of gags rather than on the visual storytelling. For instance, some movies write the gags first and then try to integrate a story that attempts to tie all of them together. What I appreciate about The Secret Life of Pets is the strong story inclusive of sight gags and double entendre humor to satisfy a diverse audience from different backgrounds and ages. In addition to the writing, the vocal talents are also instrumental in the success of this animated feature. Leading the “pack” are of course comedians Louis C.K. and Kevin Hart, but the entire cast is perfectly pairs with his or her animated persona. For the cat lovers out there (and yes, I am one of them), there are deftly come good comedic jabs at dogs. But the dogs also get in some good ones on the cats. Haha.

The setting of the movie is New York City, or an idealistic surreal New York City slightly augmented to fit the pacing, genre, and feeling of the film. I’d like to know what job Katie has to be able to live by herself in an apartment with such a beautiful view. But I suppose it’s just as well that we don’t since the focus is on the dogs. On the view from the apartment, though. Much like the view from Frasier’s upscale urban trend-setting apartment in Seattle faced a view of the Seattle skyline that doesn’t actually exist, unless you are looking at downtown from the surrounding mountains and hills, I am not entirely sure the view from Katie’s Manhattan apartment exists either. The view of the city seen from Frasier’s apartment was selected in order for the Space Needle to have a prominent placement in the skyline. In the same vein, I believe that the unrealistic view from Katie’s apartment was selected in order for the Freedom Tower to have a strong presence. I know, I am analyzing an element that doesn’t really have an affect upon the film; but since the film is actually very well done, I thought it would be fun to look at the setting of the movie.

Although I can almost guarantee you that his film won’t see an Oscar nom in the animated feature category, much less a win, since the Academy believes that only Pixar can create Oscar-worthy animated films, I find The Secret Life of Pets to be a fantastic animated feature filled with action, adventure, comedy, and some touching moments as well. All around, it is enjoyable for the whole family and will cause many owners to wonder what their pet does while he or she is away at work. One of my favorite parts of the movie is the musical sequence at the sausage factory. So much symbolism to discuss. Haha. So, yes. This movie even includes a musical number worthy of–I am sure–many memes to come over the next few months.