THE (“CUMBER”) GRINCH – WELL DONE UPDATE TO BELOVED CLASSIC STORY

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF THE GRINCH REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

The new The Grinch is entertaining for adults and children alike and respectful to its source material, but still manages a fresh take on this most beloved of children’s Christmas tales.

WHO SHOULD GO:

ANYBODY! EVERYBODY!

LONG TAKE:

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss was published in 1957, two years before I was born, and the first and most famous filmed animated version, narrated by Boris Karloff, was released in 1966 when I was 7. So the story of The Grinch has been on my radar my entire life, not to mention the fact that I have read probably every other Dr. Seuss story to my kids about a hundred times.

There have been several adaptations, including a musical and a Jim Carrey movie in 2000, the latter of which I did not much care for, as Carrey’s Grinch was a little too reminiscent of   Pennywise the clown from Stephen King’s It for my taste.

BUT – those of us who grew up with the original 1966 version need fear nothing about this latest version of The Grinch. The epynomous character is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Smaug from Lord of The Rings, Khan from the Star Trek reboot). Danny Elfman, Tim Burton’s go-to composer, deftly incorporates not only traditional Christmas music but songs from the 1966 animated film, including the Whoville Christmas song. The set ups for the story are the same, only a bit more flushed out and funnier.

The voice acting was smart and cute, even featuring a cameo from the grande dame of theater Angela Lansbury as the Mistress of Ceremonies at the Whoville tree lighting. Cindy Lou Who was performed by the charming Cameron Seely (The Greatest Showman).   Prolific composer Pharell Williams did the narration. Rashida Jones, daughter of Quincy Jones performs Donna, Cindy Lou’s mom. And Keenan Thompson voices the eternally optimistic and joyful (even for a Who) Mr. Brickelbaum.

One thing I actually like better in this version than I did in the original 1966 one, was the inclusion of several Christmas songs which reference the Nativity. Unlike other modern “Christmas” movies, this one highlights lyrics which refer to the birth of Christ, such as in “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen”: “…remember Christ Our Savior was born on Christmas Day….” Granted, it was sung by an overly enthusiastic Whoville, flashmob, Pentatonic-style choir who (pun intended) unintentionally chased the flinching Grinch through Whoville in a rather comedic scene, but the song was beautifully done.

There are a number of other similarly respectful moments in the film, which makes this 2018 version even more endearing than it otherwise would have been.

And do not be concerned about the occasional “Happy Holidays” that you will hear, because there are plenty of “Merry Christmas!” salutations to be heard, especially after the Grinch’s conversion. This might not have been a casual decision, but a deliberate script writing device. Either way it works nicely.

Benedict Cumberbatch does one of the best American accents by a Brit that I know. The only one who does it as well, I think, is Kenneth Branagh (Dead Again). Of course, I could just be biased because I am admittedly a fan of Mr. Cumberbatch. Like Mr. Branagh, Cumberbatch is not a movie star, he is an actor. (Don’t believe me – watch his Hamlet.)

The original film short was only 26 minutes. This 2018 runtime of 90 minutes uses the extra time well, investing the story with more about the Grinch’s backstory, as well as providing more credibility to his conversion, without eliminating any of the original elements from either the book or the 1966 movie.

. This movie is absolutely and completely suitable for everyone.There is no innuendo or profanity of any sort. It’s funny for adults, charming for children, enhances the original theme, and maintains the intent of the original story.

So – bravo to directors Yarrow Cheney (Despicable Me) and Scott Mosier (who, up to now has NOT been a maker of child-friendly films), scriptwriters Michael LeSieur (You, Me and Dupree), Tommy Swerdlow (Cool Runnings, Snow Dogs) and, of course Dr. Seuss/Theodor Geisel. Congrats also to music composer, Danny Elfman, and especially Mr. Cumberbatch for lending their talents to create this newest and very successful rendering of this most charming of Christmas stories for children of every age.

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SMALLFOOT – CLEVER AND SWEET WITH A SURPRISINGLY THOUGHTFUL UNDERLYING MESSAGE

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF SMALLFOOT REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Clean, genuinely funny, very kid-friendly movie about the sequence of events which results when a village of yetis is revealed to a “smallfoot”/human.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anybody can go but be advised, at 96 minutes, it is about 20 minutes too long for the average pre-kindergartner.

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LONG TAKE:

Fides et Ratio was an encyclical by Saint Pope John Paul II in 1998. Translated, the title means “Faith and Reason”. In it, then Pope, now Saint John Paul II explains that faith without reason leads to superstition and reason without faith leads to nihilism and relativism. Smallfoot, surprisingly, tackles the former of these heady, complex philosophical musings.

While I do not normally like to lead with a lot of spoilers, when analysing for a movie whose demographic is young children, as a parent, I would want full disclosure before bringing MY smallfoot, so I offer the same to you readers.

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

This children’s tale begins with a colony of yetis who live high up on a mountain, cut off visually from the rest of the world by a constant ring of clouds. Our protagonist is a good natured, happy-go-lucky yeti named Migo (Channing Tatum) whose personality almost exactly parallels that of Chris Pratt’s eternally optimistic Emmett from The Lego Movie. You almost expect him to burst out with “Everything is Awesome” as he strolls through the yeti village. This is not meant as a criticism. It’s actually quite cute as he observes the seemingly pointless Rube Goldberg occupations to which everyone is assigned, but which are explained later.

The songs are, BTW, quite catchy and one in particular, sung by the female protagonist and Migo’s love interest, Meechee (Zendaya from The Greatest Showman), “Wonderful Life”, features some thoughtful lyrics:

Take a look around
And see the world we think we know
Then look closer
There’s more to life than meets the eye
A beauty to behold
It’s all much bigger than we know.

She sings this as she shows things to Migo he never noticed, like a small butterfly crystalized in a frozen stalactite, and the details in a snowflake. Beautiful imagery for a lovely idea: that the more we see, the more we realize the grandeur in Creation.

Their belief system, literally written in stone, is a seemingly random collection of unquestioned statements, including the command that if you feel the urge to question one of the stones you should “push it down” and not think about it. The stones describe strange and mythical beasts which must be fed or cooled or tended to in odd ways. One stone commands an absolute dismissal of the possibility that there could be anything below the cloudline. The stones are worn like scale armour by the tribal leader, Stonekeeper, (Lonnie Rashid Lynn aka the rapper Common). Migo, the son of Gorgle, the Gong Ringer (Danny DeVito) is one of the biggest stone-trusting advocates in the village, until one day Migo, by chance, observes a plane crash and the ejection of a smallfoot from this flying metal object. Problem is: the existence of smallfoot is absolutely denied by one of the earliest stones. No one will believe Migo as the evidence is quickly blown off the mountain.

Meanwhile, Percy, James Corden (voice of Peter Rabbit and guest companion in a couple of Matt Smith Dr. Who’s) is the host of an animal show which is on the decline. The ejected pilot happens upon Percy with his story of sighting a yeti, and before Percy, desperate for ratings, can take advantage of this knowledge, Migo appears, looking for the pilot and proof of his smallfoot story. Their first contact is cute and clever and takes full advantage of their inability to immediately communicate.

Tatum and Corden do a wonderful job of voicing the life into their respective characters and the writers do an excellent job with the miscommunications which arise from their inability to understand each other.

The movie is occasionally laugh out loud funny. It is completely clean – no bad language and, a rarity, totally innuendo free.

As the plot progresses it is revealed that the Stonekeeper is wearing a set of lies, deliberately created to protect the village because of previous lethal encounters with humans, generations ago. The stones’ commands all begin to form a pattern: If smallfoot does not exist then there’s no reason to go look for them. The ring of clouds is manufactured for camouflage by the steam generating machine deep within the mountain which the ice ball production and turning gears on the surface facilitates. The other stones which describe a sky snail and mammoths under the clouds which are cooled by the ice balls all were made up and commanded to be accepted without question to protect the villagers from leaving and revealing their village.

There are plot points in Smallfoot which harken back to other movies, certainly: the hidden city of Wakanda in Black Panther, and a concept accepted without question which keeps two potentially friendly but very dissimilar groups apart, but which is a complete lie, as in Monsters, Inc. for example, that children are dangerously toxic. (I won’t even discuss The Village because Smallfoot is a much better movie). But Smallfoot is not a derivative of any of them.

If I make the movie sound like it is heavily philosophical, it is not. The movie plays out like any normal child friendly film with lots of slap stick, goofy looking characters, Bugs Bunny-level pratfalls, bright colors, and non-lethal force. (Exs: an angry mama bear appears to be attacking, but when translated is just loudly chiding Migo for disturbing her family from their hibernation when it took her WEEKS to get her cubs to sleep. A crashing helicopter’s propellors are caught in trees spinning the body of the copter and the pilot emerges unscathed but incredibly dizzy.)

But it is the thoughtful story and clever characters that put Smallfoot above the general mishmash of kid movies which usually populate the screen. Inevitably the yetis’ faith without reason in the commands on the stones, about which Saint Pope John Paul II cautioned, breeds a mindless superstition requiring blind belief, and when challenged by truth, falls apart. It is only when reason and faith come together – when truth is combined with some earned trust between Migo and Percy, that a peaceful diplomatic solution is possible.

I liked Smallfoot. It has all the charm of a harmless silly kid movie, adds sly but innocent humor for the adults, and has an intelligent underlying theme. The characters are well fleshed out for the cast of an elementary school level movie. Plus the songs are catchy and cute without being heavy handed and are sparingly used. And best of ALL – it did NOT go for the STUPID, almost UBIQUITOUS “female empowerment” message with which we are regularly bludgeoned and which has ruined entire franchises (I’d sneeze the words Star Wars if I was standing right in front of you to make the point, but I’m not so you’ll just have to imagine that.)

My only real complaint is that it was a bit too long, by about 20 minutes, for the primary school demographic to which the producers were aiming. My two year old grandson loved it and was mesmerized until the last bit and wanted to walk around while watching the denouement. At 96 minutes it really should have gone through one more trimming.

Aside from that very small criticism, Smallfoot is a delightful film with a bit more meat on its bones than you might expect or is carried on your average kid movie. It will entertain even the littlest kids, but still provide mom and dad with something worthwhile to mull over with even the oldest.Arguably the best kid movie I’ve since in 2018 yet(i)…..sorry couldn’t resist.