‘Grinch,’ ‘Girl in the Spider’s Web’ and the Do’s and Don’ts of Box Office Revivals

Grinch Spider's Web
Courtesy of Illumination/Universal Pictures, Reiner Bajo/Sony Pictures

There are few things Hollywood loves more than a good revival. A familiar brand with a built-in fan base? Sold!

Even so, bringing back a recognizable property comes with risks. That’s a lesson illustrated last weekend at the box office. It was a tale of two reboots. Illumination and Universal’s “The Grinch,” the third adaptation of the classic Dr. Seuss Christmas tale, opened with a massive $66 million, but “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” Sony’s sorta sequel to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” faltered with an anemic $8 million.

Of course, it wasn’t exactly a battle of equals. One movie centers on a beloved character with a 60-year history, written by one of the most iconic and prolific children’s book authors. That kind of pedigree creates a prime opportunity for a studio hoping to cash in on a little nostalgia among families (especially around the holidays). The other flick is based on a series of Swedish crime novels that are roughly a decade removed from their literary phenomenon days. Moreover, although Lisbeth Salander hacked her way into readers’ hearts, her on-screen adventures never resonated as strongly on the big screen. The studio behind “Spider’s Web” is hesitant to call it a reboot, though the followup to David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” features all new actors, replacing its lead Rooney Mara with Claire Foy. It’s definitely not your traditional sequel. Fincher’s film was admired for its moody visuals and for Mara’s Oscar-nominated performance, but its $232.6 million global haul was a disappointment given its nearly $100 million budget. To its credit, this latest Salander adventure cost less. It has a $43 million budget.

Neither “The Grinch” nor the “The Girl” wowed critics. Though they were arguably less impressed with “Spider’s Web,” which garnered a 45% on Rotten Tomatoes, “The Grinch” wasn’t exactly a love-fest either. It drew a mediocre 55% on the review aggregation site. Still, the latter was able to break through the noise and deliver big dividends at the box office, while the former will struggle to find its audience during the crowded holiday corridor.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” isn’t the first reboot to whiff at multiplexes, and it certainly won’t be the last. To help studios learn from its mistakes — and to praise Hollywood for when it hits the mark — Variety compiled a few do’s and don’ts when it comes to revisiting a franchise. Thank us at your next greenlighting committee meeting.

Don’t: Ignore what made the original stand out

A common gripe about Ron Howard’s live-action version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with Jim Carrey was that his wacky green grouch was a little too off brand from the gentle and kid friendly TV special that so memorably featured the dulcet tones of Boris Karloff. Make no mistake, despite tepid reviews, that rendition was a massive box office hit. But this time, Benedict Cumberbatch lends his voice to the eponymous antagonist, who still loathes Christmas, of course, but is able to rein in the crazy and stay a little truer to the beloved children’s book. And much of what was praised for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was Fincher’s uniquely keen and dark vision. Blame it on busy schedules or wavering interests, but it’s worth questioning what “Spider’s Web” would have looked like with Fincher, the thriller maven known for films like “Fight Club,” “Gone Girl,” and “The Social Network,” back at the helm. And why recast Mara when she played that role so well?

Do: Take some risks

Just because there’s a built-in fanbase doesn’t mean aficionados are paying to see the same movie twice. There’s making audiences happy, and then there’s playing it a little too safe. Critics almost unanimously agreed that “The Grinch” didn’t add much to the original 1966 television special. It was, however, able to introduce in a few new characters and storylines to keep the residents of Whoville feeling fresh. This iteration added a Dickensian backstory to explain how the Grinch got to be in such a snit. Another entertaining addition was a plump reindeer named Fred, who provides some laughs as he attempts to carry the Grinch’s massive sleigh. And while Cindy Lou Who still meets the Grinch while delivering a letter to Santa, in this go-around, the wide-eyed Who is on a quest for Saint Nick to thank him for helping her widowed mom during the holidays. None of these are exactly ground-breaking additions, but they fit in with the Seuss spirit and make this version of “The Grinch” feel like more than a tired retread.

Don’t: Forget to make the movie relevant to today

A key ingredient in the perfect reboot cocktail is relevancy. For a series to reconnect with its core audience, and to lure some new fans, a movie need to tap into the zeitgeist. That’s something Warner Bros. nailed earlier this year with “Ocean’s 8,” as the decades-old heist thriller got a gender-bending remake and put a phalanx of badass females front and center. And perhaps, that’s where “Spider’s Web” missed the mark. In his review for Variety, Jay Weissberg wrote, “How sadly ironic that in the midst of the #MeToo moment, one of recent fiction’s most iconic characters in the fight against sexual abuse gets turned into just another male fantasy action figure.” The new installment failed to spotlight Lisbeth Salander, the computer hacker with a deeply disturbing past as a target of sexual assault, as a feminist fighter in the era of #MeToo and Time’s Up. It’s a dreary world out there, and moviegoers might enjoy a protagonist with a purpose.