The Grinch

Cast: (voiced by) Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Keenan Thompson, Cameron Seely, Pharrell Williams, Angela Lansbury

Directors: Scott Mosier, Yarrow Cheney

Writers: Michael LeSieur, Tommy Swerdlow

The films by Pixar and Dreamworks, I like them a lot; but those of Illumination, I really do not. I hated The Grinch! I thought it great treason against Suess’ beloved ode to the Christmas season. Perhaps my head isn’t screwed on quite right or perhaps my standards are too rigid and tight but having sat through it, enduring it all, I feel all the more strongly that the film’s value is small. “We already have a Grinch film”, I snarled with a sneer, “by Karloff and Jones and it remains without peer”. This film is garish, unfunny and brain-numbing, it was everything that I had feared in the days upcoming. There is one redeeming feature, one saving grace, which is that Seuss’ creation is too great to be defaced. At the end of the day the message still comes through and the studio’s tedious releases are all set to continue.

The story is a classic, we all know it well; it’s about the mean Mr. Grinch, rotten in every cell. That actor who played Sherlock and Strange is the star despite his American accent sounding like Gruber’s in Die Hard. In a mountaintop cave he lives far, far away from those who should dare to try and brighten his day. He hates everyone and everything with gall, and as for Christmas, he hates that most of all. He hates the food, the decorations and toys and he absolutely detests the incessantly cheerful noise. It comes every year and it keeps getting worse, to the Grinch this wonderful time is nothing but a curse. So, as the Whos of Whoville makes their preparations and whatnot, the Grinch has an idea and hatches a fiendish plot. If the Whos will not stop with their goodwill and mayhem, then he’ll have to go into town and steal Christmas from them.

That’s the whole story and it took half an hour for Karloff and Jones to tell it with such wit and power. From where I stand a remake is just unnecessary (and don’t even get me started on the one with Jim Carrey). But this is a feature-length movie with a quota to meet, so it has to be longer and get more kids in the seats. Thus they pad the runtime with backstory and gags, but they don’t add anything except as tiresome lags. There’s also a sub-plot about Cindy-Lou Who whose mom has more on her plate than she knows what to do. She works a full-time job and cares for three kids by herself, so Cindy-Lou wants to capture Santa and ask for his help. The result is a movie that’s overlong and dull without a funny joke in sight or a new idea in its skull.

When it comes to kid’s movies, Illumination sets the bar low and aims mainly for toddlers whose parents have nowhere else to go. The colours are bright and the movement is fluid, but if you’re above a certain age you’ll see there’s little else to it. The jokes are all lame and made of the thinnest veneer, including those of the screaming goat and of the big, plump reindeer. The movie introduces both as if they’ll have major parts to play, but all they do is appear, perform their bits, then go away. The rest of the humour is made up of slapstick galore, and it certainly doesn’t help that the Grinch himself is a bore. Cumberbatch’s grump is a jerk but seldom is he nasty and there’s little pleasure in watching him be villainous and crafty. Instead of a monster destroying happiness where he sees it, all the Grinch wants is curl up quietly with a good book and read it. Gone is that entertainingly malevolent brute, but still I have to admit that his dog Max is quite cute.

While the cartoon had that song by Thurl Ravenscroft, a witty, animated tune still heard around Christmas oft, this movie opens with a droning rap by Tyler the Creator that contrasts with the energetic backdrop made by the animator. It’s pretty typical for a film that is so clearly calculated to make a profit today for a product that’ll soon be dated. This isn’t a movie that kids will return to again and again; this is simply the next car in Illumination’s money train. It has enough going on to keep little kids distracted and the moral is still there so at least it’s somewhat didactic. The Christmas Eve heist has a couple of highlights, what with all those gizmos and gadgets the Grinch uses that night. As cynical cashgrabs go, this one isn’t the worst even if its take on Seuss’ story has nothing on the first. Still it’s shallow, unwitty and lazy and, in my humble opinion, kids today deserve better than this from the studio that made Minions.



The Secret Life of Pets

Cast: (voiced by) Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan, Ellie Kemper, Bobby Moynihan, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hanniball Buress, Jenny Slate, Albert Brooks

Directors: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney

Writers: Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio

In the current climate of children’s animation where recent hits include such movies as Inside Out and Zootropolis, the standard, and consequently the level of expectation, has never been higher. Not only were both of these movies wildly entertaining, but they also told smart and multifaceted stories with challenging and compelling themes that resonated strongly with children and grown-ups alike. The Secret Life of Pets is not one of them. It is a cute and fun movie that is enjoyable for audiences to watch, which is enough if all you seek is a fun and pleasing distraction for your kids. Very few viewers will be moved or astounded by what they see in this film but plenty of them will have a laugh and will delight in looking at all the cute, well-designed animals that get drawn into the story. It’s the movie that children will like while they’re watching it but won’t remember after it’s done.

A terrier called Max lives with his owner Katie in an apartment and their lives are just about perfect. That is until Katie adopts Duke, a large dog from the pound, who then starts to take up Max’s space and Katie’s attention. A jealous Max tries to leave Duke stranded in the middle of the city but things go wrong when they both lose their collars and are then caught by animal control. The dogs are rescued by a psychopathic rabbit named Snowball who then tries to recruit them in his crusade against humanity. The two have to work together to escape Snowball’s crazed army and find their way home. Meanwhile Gidget, a Pomeranian with a crush on Max, notices that he is missing and forms a ragtag team of pets, including Chloe the tabby cat, Norman the guinea pig and Tiberius the red-tailed hawk, to help her find and rescue him before Katie gets home.

The plot is essentially Toy Story with pets. The protagonist who enjoys a perfect relationship with his master, the new guy who upsets the status quo, the bungled plan that results in them both getting separated from the master; it’s all there. However, whereas the journey in Toy Story had stakes, The Secret Life of Pets does not. The dangers Max and Duke encounter, such as a ruthless street gang of cats and a giant, deadly snake, are greatly exaggerated, resulting in an adventure that feels more like a cartoon than Toy Story ever did. There is little emotional weight or tension attached to their struggle and little risk taken in the story. This isn’t to say that the adventure isn’t fun to watch or that the characters they encounter aren’t entertaining, just that it is not the thrill ride nor the emotional rollercoaster that some of the best animations in recent years have proven to be. There isn’t a larger story being told beyond that of two dogs trying to find their way home but it’s still a story that will keep you entertained for a couple of hours.

Max is a relatable enough protagonist that following him around isn’t a bore. His function in the story however is essentially to serve as a vessel for the audience which means that he has to play it straight most of the time. Therefore most of the laughs in this movie come from the side characters. One notable example is Kevin Hart’s Snowball, the manic bunny rabbit on a homicidal rampage against human beings. Another is Jenny Slate’s Gidget, the intensely enamoured dog who is thoroughly prepared to turn the city upside down in pursuit of her beloved Max. My favourite was Albert Brooks’ Tiberius, a furtive hawk who must team up with the pets out of necessity and who must constantly restrain himself from hunting them. While I don’t expect any of these characters to become household names in the near future, they served the roles they needed to serve and were fun to watch.

When compared to the remarkable works produced by Disney, Pixar and Studio Ghibli, The Secret Life of Pets does not rank highly. It is not a particularly smart, creative or groundbreaking movie. It doesn’t really offer anything that you will not have seen before nor is there anything truly valuable for either children or adults to take away from it. However if a 90-minute distraction is all that you want, then this is the movie for you. It is likeable, harmless and fun. It may not be Toy Story, but few movies are. The Secret Life of Pets may not have any innovative ideas, inventive imagination or deep meanings but it has colourful characters, amusing gags and neat designs. With the right expectations, those can be enough for an audience. It is not a movie that demands to be seen but, if you’re looking to kill some time, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.