The story of how the Grinch stole Christmas is embedded into the American holiday tradition just as much — if not more — as the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, Rudolph and even Santa Claus. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who never read the book and or watched the movie(s) or shook their head at the silly grumpy Grinch who just doesn’t understand the magic of Christmas (and the general holiday season) the way that we do.
Adults often find ourselves sympathizing with the Grinch as the repetitive nature of the holiday season plays out once again: jolly elves, presents, speciality holiday lattes, all that holly and tinsel in an effort to mask the realities of the world around us. But while watching yet another retelling of The Grinch may seem like a nostalgic violation, there’s something about this CG-animated tale that feels familiar and comforting — as well as unexpectedly vulnerable.
I was not ready for this movie.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for The Grinch]
This month’s The Grinch, from animation studio Illumination, is the standard Dr. Seuss story that we all know. Unlike the 2000 Jim Carrey version, this Grinch (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) isn’t burdened by a convoluted (shaving?) origin story. Instead, the reason for his jaded view of the holiday is simple: he grew up in an orphanage and was jealous of everyone’s family warmth during Christmas.
Projecting onto the Grinch is even easier thanks to simple backstory. He complains about the consumerism and greed of the holiday season; we chuckle. He makes jokes about emotionally overeating to deal with his problems; we nod. He talks about self-isolating himself because it’s better that way; that hits close to home. He lives alone. His best friend is his pet. He only leaves when he needs to get groceries, dreading human interaction.
I’m not usually a holiday naysayer by any means, but about half-an-hour into the movie I was hit with the revelation: Oh shit, the Grinch is me.
At this point in my life, I’ve seen the original 1966 Grinch animated film every year of my elementary school life, and bits and pieces of the 2000 Jim Carrey movie when it plays 800 times during on television during Freeform’s “25 Days of Christmas” marathon. I’ve read the Dr. Seuss book and I’ve listened to the Thurl Ravenscroft song when it’s pumped on the radio every cheery holiday season (sidebar: the Tyler the Creator cover produced for this movie slaps). I know how the story of the Grinch goes and by no means should it take me off guard.
But The Grinch made me cry.
Disclaimer: I am a regular movie crier, but I’ve never ever cried while watching a Grinch movie. There was something about the new version’s take on the heart-warming scene, the one in which the Who’s down in Whoville sing and hold hands, blowing the Grinch away with the power of Christmas and love — that just made me tear up. Hurriedly so that no one in the dark theater could see, I brushed the tears away, because this is a kid’s story! I’ve seen at least a dozen times in my life! I should absolutely not be moved to tears!
Illumination’s strong suit is creating sincerely adorable characters. The heart and soul of the original Despicable Me was the three sisters. The Minions got their own spinoff. The Lorax featured a soft, cuddly Danny DeVito-voiced version of the title character. The Secret Life of Pets took pets and somehow made them cuter. In The Grinch, the best parts revolve around the Grinch’s dog Max who just wants him to be happy, Fred the wonderfully large reindeer who joins them, and Cindy Lou Who, who manages to not fall into the trap of annoying child protagonist character, but instead is genuinely endearing. The Grinch doesn’t try anything new, but it takes all the familiar elements and packages it up in the most charming ways.
It’s not just the Illumination cuteness and the wholesome nature of the story that made me cry. There was a particular characterization to this version of the Grinch that made his problems feel all the more real, versus the more bombastic Jim Carrey version or the scheming original.
Like every other Grinch tale, this one ends with the Grinch joining the citizens of Whoville for Christmas dinner. Unlike the other Grinch tales, instead of diving right into the festivities after returning all the presents and decor, this Grinch stumbles back to his home to shut himself back inside. Cindy Lou Who pops on by to invite him over for Christmas dinner, which he finally summons the courage to do, incredibly terrified of rejection and being an outcast once again.
It’s an act of kindness on Cindy Lou’s part, but it’s also an act of courage on the Grinch’s. Putting yourself out there after self-isolation, internalizing that perhaps it’s better to be alone, and that people off are better off without you, is terrifying. Maybe it’s not supposed to be that deep. Maybe the Grinch double-checking his tie and hesitantly stepping into the house, completely surprised that people actually want him around is just another chuckle-worthy gag. In an era where we often share feelings of loneliness and self-imposed solitude online with strangers rather than burden a would-be friend, The Grinch strikes a particular chord.
The ending note of love and acceptance is the same across all Grinch tales, but this Grinch’s hesitation to belong, and the choice of having him return to his lonely cave to spend Christmas by himself right after delivering the presents instead of jumping into the festivities, was a small choice that said a lot. The Grinch hesitating outside of the Who’s doorway was not the moment I expected to make my heart squeeze, but it sure felt like a gentle nudge directly towards me: it’s okay to put yourself out there
The Grinch is out now in theaters.