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THE GRINCH: Tweaking Seuss … with solid results

When you combine the genius of Dr. Seuss and animator Chuck Jones with vocalists Boris Karloff and Thurl Ravenscroft, you get 1966’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” -- a classic that has stood the test of time as well as any other Christmas staple you can name. So … did the world really needed another Grinch?

Probably not -- but I don’t think you’ll hear many folks complaining.

Helping erase the memory of Ron Howard’s lackluster 2000 version, the new computer-animated update has its heart squarely in the right place. The music and the candy-dandy visuals are modern; but the storyline is downright old-fashioned. Eschewing the slapstick, chaos and bathroom humor of other modern animated fare, “The Grinch” hones in on seasonal sentiment and selflessness; at times it pulls more firmly on one’s heartstrings than the original.

Benedict Cumberbatch does a wonderful job voicing the titular Christmas-crab, with strong help from Rashida Jones, Pharrell Williams and Kenan Thompson; yet the best thing about this new version is the way it tweaks Seuss’ storyline. That sounds like blasphemy, even from a purist like me -- but it works.

There’s effective humor with a friendly but overweight reindeer for the Grinch’s sleigh (don’t worry; Max still gets to wear his goofy horn and sink into the snow). And there are substantial hints that the Grinch is not quite as grinchy as he seems -- paving the way for his sudden transformation on Mt. Crumpet. You’ll also note a number of tributes to the Seuss canon -- including visual cues from the 1966 cartoon.

More significantly, Little Cindy Lou Who -- now a bit more than two -- plays a much bigger role; together with poignant glimpses of the Grinch’s backstory, she provides a strong thematic and emotional backbone. All this makes “The Grinch” feel fresh -- yet also faithful to Seuss’ vision of familial love and community kindness.

The only major drawback is that the writers jettison most of Seuss’ beautiful poetry, substituting a lot of new material. Now this is risky, since Seuss’ peerless rhyme and rhythm put him in a class with other masters like Poe and Tennyson -- I’m not kidding.

Sadly, writers Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow don’t have a good ear for meter -- or for words that work together. When the film’s first rhyme paired “me” with “dream,” I knew we were in trouble. Worse yet, the rhyme eventually drops out completely -- which is quite distracting.

Fortunately, Williams does a manful job handling the narration, and the theater full of kids and parents really seemed to enjoy themselves. At the same time, they got a fine seasonal message about how much we need one another, and how Christmas -- perhaps -- doesn’t come from a sleigh.

Here’s hoping their hearts grew three sizes that day.

“The Grinch,”

directed by Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier

Run time: 88 min.

* * * (out of four)

Rated PG for brief rude humor

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