“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” remains arguably the best of TV’s animated Christmas specials. Yet the Chuck Jones/Dr. Seuss holiday classic is a model of storytelling economy, whereas the new version, “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch,” captures sparks of that magic while straining to treble its size — like the Grinch’s small heart, only here for theatrical purposes.
In that regard, this “Grinch,” which features Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice of the title character, has a good deal in common with “The Lorax,” another Illumination Entertainment adaptation of a Seuss staple, which felt similarly labored in fleshing out its story.
To its credit, a few of the new elements in “The Grinch” are pretty nifty, perhaps most notably an expanded visual representation of Whoville, the idyllic town whose Christmas festivities become the object of the Grinch’s ire. The other major additions are both new — little Cindy Lou Who, in this telling way more than two, is now the concerned daughter of a single mom struggling to make ends meet — and very old, providing the Grinch an origin story that vaguely echoes why young Ebenezer Scrooge was so hostile to the holidays.
Other tacked-on elements are colorful, if fairly broad and garishly comedic, from an overweight reindeer who becomes part of the Grinch’s plot to an ebullient Whoville resident Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson) whose wholesale embrace of Christmas cheer represents everything that the Grinch isn’t.
Much of that feels like filler, perhaps inevitably, as the Grinch builds up to the idea of stealing the Whos’ Christmas; devises an elaborate plan to execute his scheme; and finally, comes to recognize the true spirit of the season, which, as Cindy Lou’s mom (Rashida Jones) tells her, is about more than mere “stuff.”
The heartwarming aspects have to work pretty hard to knife through the clutter, and the uplifting ending — while still good — has been somewhat blunted in pursuit of a slightly more expansive message. Movie length also robs the Seuss-ian dialogue of some of its poetry, even with a Pharrell Williams narration that draws heavily on the script from the original production.
Finally, there’s Cumberbatch’s voice work, which involves adopting a slightly nasal twang that, frankly, won’t make anybody forget Boris Karloff, and really makes one yearn to hear the actor’s resonant baritone, British accent and all.
The underlying bones of “The Grinch” are so solid the movie can’t help but be moderately pleasing. But to borrow from another holiday special, the commercial imperative to adorn the story with shiny baubles to suit the frenetic demands of modern animation is a bit like the little Christmas tree that Charlie Brown brings home to Linus and the gang. Yes, it’s nice to dress it up a bit, but one bulb too many can potentially topple the whole thing.
“Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” premieres Nov. 9 in the U.S. It’s rated PG.