There was no better way to get into the Christmas spirit this past December than by taking a break from the busy gift buying and seasonal travelling to take in Illumination Entertainment's The Grinch. Following The Lorax, The Grinch is the second Dr. Seuss story to be adapted by the animation studio, based on the 1957 book How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Illumination has done an exquisite job retelling this story, going back to the affectionate roots of Dr. Seuss' tale and creating an incredible visual spectacle. The film was directed by Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier, while the Grinch himself was voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, with Pharrell Williams nailing the narration the whole way through. The picture received some initial backlash for adapting the story of the Grinch for the third time, but if it is Illumination's intention to continue making Dr. Seuss films in establishing their own universe, as it were, it only makes sense for them to have tackled this popular character early in the process. As a fan of both the 1966 television special and the live-action 2000 remake starring Jim Carrey, I was amazed at how industriously they made this character their own. The music played a lively role in that accomplishment, with Danny Elfman nurturing the sonic joy of the score while drawing on both traditional Christmas carols and music from the original animation by composer/songwriter Albert Hague. The Grinch, as far as music is concerned, is Elfman's return to form. Coming full circle from The Nightmare Before Christmas, the composer has taken his wealth of experience and poured it lovingly into this score. His talent for making music that is both playful and terrifying excels in this film, with festive and haunting orchestrations throughout, creating the perfect blend of starry-night awe and Kris Kringle cheer. There is a joke among musicians regarding Christmas music and how it seems inescapable at times as many begin rehearsing their seasonal repertoire in September. One can only imagine how Elfman felt having to get into the spirit of things in preparation for such a classic over the summer months, but he has done an excellent job of it. Two new themes lead the score while Hague's "Welcome Christmas" sits comfortably as the emotional centrepiece of the film. The first theme was written for Whoville and its people, using a quaint, two-bar figure in the major mode as its primary motive. The melody continues with buoyant expression through transitory material before returning to the primary motive in the relative minor. This theme can be understood well from the first cue ("The Big Opening") as the whistling enters, the same moment in which we are introduced to the inhabitants of Whoville. Even before this though the magical world of Dr. Seuss is enveloped by chimes, tubular bells, rich vocals, agile strings, and bouncing brass, with cor anglais and French horn trading out with one another on the festive "Welcome Christmas" melody. The second theme was that written for the Grinch, usually sitting in the bass register and ascending dangerously through the dorian scale. The way it carries itself forward with restless, dotted rhythms and chromatic intervals makes it a fitting line for its subject. It enters for the first time at the beginning of the film when we turn our sights on Mount Crumpet, but can be heard many times over as the film carries on. Its most insidious appearance is made when the Grinch has his wonderful, awful idea, joined by an organ and a theremin of all instruments ("Welcome Christmas / Forlorn"). Traditionally the theremin has long been associated with science-fiction films, like Bernard Herrmann's score for the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still, or Elfman's own Mars Attacks! Its appearance in The Grinch was surprising and refreshing, used again when we come across a sleepwalking who ("Stealing Christmas").
"You're A Mean One Mr. Grinch" takes the stage when the character is introduced, performed as a rap collaboration between the composer and Tyler Okonma (AKA Tyler, the Creator). In order to maintain the song's authenticity Elfman wrote an accompaniment with a children's chorus on the melody over top Tyler's vocals. I cannot say I was a fan of this particular arrangement, especially as it seemed to clash stylistically with everything else that was written in the score, but it was certainly an interesting interpretation of the song. Okonma and Elfman enjoyed their collaboration so much they wrote a separate song together for the end credits titled "I'm the Grinch". An astonishing number of carols, referenced or otherwise, also found their way into this film. The score took responsibility for some, like "O Tannenbaum", given a resounding refrain as the whos of Whoville transported an enormous Christmas tree for their celebration ("Christmas in Whoville"), and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", taken up in the minor by a ghoulish choir as Cindy Lou Who puts in motion her misguided plan to capture Santa Claus ("Walking Toward Destiny"). "The Christmas Song" was also performed on guitar in the score, passed on to the strings as the Grinch joined the whos for dinner ("First Christmas"). Additionally, a hysterically obnoxious recording of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by Pentatonix was used toward the beginning of the film as the Grinch found himself surrounded by all those things he hates most. There was an a cappella rendition of "Silent Night" sung by a small gathering of whos on Christmas Eve, and a rather pathetic version of "All By Myself", with the Grinch playing his monstrously twisted organ and feeling sorry for himself. A number of these tracks, while not appearing on the score album release, can be found on the soundtrack album release. Other highlights from the score include the jazz influence used throughout much of the action sequences, like the rush hour drum kit and electric guitar met by rapid strings as Cindy travels across town ("Mailing a Letter"), or the wailing brass used during Max's reconnaissance ("Command Center"). The trampling oom-pah rhythms typical of Elfman's music appear most notably during the hectic family scenes, such as "To the Fort", while a stylish return of the jazz instruments can be heard as the Grinch displays his sleek, red hot Santa sleigh ("Grinch's Wild Ride"). Several brilliant emotional focal points are given a chance to shine as well, such as the beautiful tree lighting ceremony with rapturous tutti chorus and orchestra ("Christmas in Whoville"), the grief-stricken flashback explaining the Grinch's hatred of Christmas that features chorus and strings ("Lost Lonely Boy"), and the jingle bells heard in anticipation of Christmas Day ("Kids Can't Sleep"). Cindy is given her own moments of innocent wisdom on piano and flute respectively when the Grinch breaks into her home to steal their belongings ("Taking the Bait") and later as she is given credit by the Grinch for his change of heart ("The Big Finale"). It seems to me these moments were alluding to the same character's theme from the 2000 live-action remake, "Where Are You Christmas?" written by James Horner. I could be mistaken, but there is a likeness all the same. The climax of the film with the Grinch's revelation is truly spectacular ("Welcome Christmas"). Opening with a solo boy soprano, the melody is carried out and gradually joined in unison by the rest of the choir, varying from this point into new text never before used in the song that literally welcomes the Grinch home. The soaring clemency of the full ensemble, alternating between A major and the parallel minor as the Grinch wrestles with his inner morality, and finally arriving to the moment of release with a magnificent D-flat major as he sees the light, is simply stunning. There is so much terrific music in this score, and if Illumination means to continue making Dr. Seuss films I hope they keep Elfman in mind.