A film review by Craig J. Koban November 10, 2009

A CHRISTMAS CAROL jjj
½ 

2009, PG, 93 mins.

 

With the voices of:


Scrooge/Ghosts: Jim Carrey / Cratchit/Marley/ Tiny Tim: Gary Oldman / Fred: Colin Firth / Fezziwig/Joe: Bob Hoskins / Fan/Belle: Robin Wright Penn / Wilkins/Fiddler: Cary Elwes / Mrs. Dilber Fionnula Flanagan

Written and directed by Robert Zemeckis / Based on the story by Charles Dickens

SCREENED IN
3D

There have been many that I have spoken to that shutter at the thought of yet another film version of Charles Dickens’ 1843 Victorian morality tale.  To be fair, A CHRISTMAS CAROL's tale of the emotional and spiritual redemption of a monumentally cantankerous old financier/money changer into the living embodiment of yuletide cheer hardly needs any introduction to anyone.  

Even people that have never read the original 19th Century source material could easily sum up the entire story arc of Ebenezer Scrooge.  This, of course, has been greatly assisted by the countless adaptations that have been made over the last hundred years, including, among others, the Reginald Owen 1938 incarnation or the much cherished 1951 remake with Alastair Sim, which has become mandatory viewing for many families every holiday season.  I could go on, but to emphasize how many versions that exist of this Christmas classic would be redundant.   

Having said all that, could it be possible that yet another film version could rekindle the interest of a modern audience?  If your name is Robert Zemeckis, then you are probably responding a resounding “yes,” and his new incarnation of Dickens’ immortally revered story does the miraculous by reinvigorating a narrative that people are intuitively familiar with.  As opposed to making it within the confines of traditional live action techniques, Zemeckis has opted – for the third time in his recent directorial career –  to chronicle the rebirth of Scrooge using motion capture animation, which he used to superlative effect in two of the finest animated films of the current decade in 2004’s THE POLAR EXPRESS and more recently in 2007’s BEOWULF.  

Detractors of motion capture can complain all they want (which I will discuss in a bit), but there should be no denying whatsoever the transcending allure and liberating beauty that Zemeckis and his animators achieve by painting their silver screen canvas.  More importantly, Zemeckis is smart and crafty enough to keenly understand that all of the flash-bang visual delights thrown on screen cannot detract from the simple essence and themes from Dickens’ literary canon.  Like all great filmmakers that rely heavily on pixalized film artifice, Zemeckis uses cutting edge CGI to compliment his vision of the story he's trying to tell, and the surprising and ultimately compelling aspect of this version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is how astonishingly well in combines splendid, state of the art imagery with a suitably dark, ominous, and faithful appropriation of the original text.   His A CHRISTMAS CAROL looks positively sensational, but he also captures the subtler details of the legendary story, especially when it comes to honing in on the mood and tone of the piece.  Very few film versions of this Christmas fantasy have radiated with as much moody atmosphere and intrigue. 

The story itself (from a script solely by Zemeckis) hardly needs any embellishment, but is phenomenally loyal to the narrative and even dialogue from Dickens.  The timeless plot revolves around a money lender named Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey, giving a uncharacteristically grounded and thoughtful performance), whom, in the beginning of the film, is arranging for the funeral of his old business partner, Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman), and this introductory moment easily highlights what a penny pinching, curmudgeonly, and social stunted old geezer he is.  He is a man in the winter of his life and one that only wishes to make as much money as possible and, most importantly, to avoid all human contact.  Oh, he also really, really detests Christmas with a heated passion, especially when his well-off and well-meaning nephew (Colin Firth) frequently attempts to invite him over for Christmas dinner with his family and friends.  If ostracizing his poor nephew during the one festive time of the year is not bad enough, Scrooge also finds time to complain about giving his impoverished clerk, Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman…again!) the day off for Christmas.   

However, fate does step in with the appearance of three spectres that wish to make fundamental changes to Scrooge’s horribly negative outlook on both humanity and the true nature of Christmas.  The first ghost that visits the petrified Scrooge is actually the diseased visage of Jacob Marley himself and it forewarns him that he will be visited by three more apparitions that will try to make him realize that there is more to life than making money and alienating all people around him.  First to arrive is the Ghost of Christmas Past (played by Carrey), who whisks Scrooge away to see key moments of his youth.  Following this spirit is the Ghost of Christmas Present (Carrey again) that shows Scrooge a portal into the lives of both his nephew and Bob Cratchit.  Finally, and most crucially, a mute and shadowy Ghost of Christmas Future arrives to show Scrooge what his time on earth will be like in the years to come, and the news is so ghastly that is has colossal effects on him.  

No need to tell you what happens next. 

Once again, Zemeckis - as he did with his last two animated/motion capture efforts - displays that he is one of the most self-assured craftsman working today for giving audiences scene after scene of astounding visual innovation.  The imagery here is abound with stupendous delights:  We have an incredibly realized opening flyby through the streets of 1840’s London, which seems to hurtle itself through every possible angle of the city without a cut, which would have been all but impossible without animation.  Aside from that shot, Zemeckis is also meticulous with using animation to create a strong evocation of tension and dread: he places his flawed and fragile characters in shots that are overpowered by the ominous and towering buildings, props and rooms.  The ghosts themselves are also marvels of insidious and macabre creativity: I especially liked the ghost of Marley, who seems weighed down by several cinder blocks with chains attaching them to his body; the Ghost of the Past is a compelling visual, a candle wick with a disembodied flame for a head that floats in and out of the frame.  The Ghost of the Christmas Present is an imposing, giant-like, laughing specimen of a bearded man, who occupies a marvelous sequence where he makes the floor of Scrooges’ bedroom disappear so he can turn it into a portal so that they can eavesdrop on their subjects in different locations. 

More than perhaps BEOWULF and THE POLAR EXPRESS, the motion capture animation present here is even more amazingly detailed, nuanced, and fluid.  Whereas most of the human characters have sense of realistic facial expressivity and movement, Scrooge himself is appropriately shown as a grotesquely skeletal old man with facial features that are almost subhuman (which is the right choice, seeing as the point here is to shown this figure as one that is segregated from the rest of society).  And, yeah, there have been countless nitpickers that bemoan that motion capture paints these human figures with a chilly, doll-like veneer that robs them of humanity.  As I have with my reviews of Zemeckis' last two animated efforts, I will once again emphasize that these detractors not only shamefully overlook the sheer artistry of Zemeckis’ exhilarating visual palette, but they also misunderstand it.  

Of course the film looks artificial.  Of course the human characters don’t look 100 per cent real.  Of course CGI people cannot - and many never - replicate humanity of actors.  Zemeckis is not trying to use pioneering technology to replace conventional filmmaking techniques.  Instead, he uses motion capture to breathe new life into ageless stories and myths.  To complain that the figures in these films don’t look perfectly human and realistic is about as foolhardy as to say that the figures in a Matisse painting don’t appear perfectly realistic.  The point here is that he is trying to transport us into the hypnotic world of Dickens in a manner that we’ve never experienced before, and the motion capture gives the film an ethereal and wondrous sheen that traditional live action methods could not capture.  The technology creates a sense of grandeur, escape, and, more importantly, unnaturalness, which heightens the film's magic.   A natural looking film would have all but buried what Zemeckis is aiming for here.  A CHRISTMAS CAROL, it should also be noted, is presented in select theatres in Real-D 3D, and although I am still dubious about the long-time viability of using it, Zemeckis here does the absolute right thing by using it sparingly to denote depth in the image instead of just lazily using it for ostentatious, in-your-face wow moments.  Whereas most filmmakers utterly use 3D as a cheap gimmick to put buts in seats, Zemeckis uses it to add texture to the shots: less is more when using 3D, trust me.

The performances are also significant to the cause as well, and one of the simple pleasures here is just how fully immersed – and subdued – Carrey is in the title role.   Aside from being more flamboyant with voicing the two Christmas sprits, Carrey wisely does not turn Scrooge into a one-note cartoon buffoon (which certainly must have been a temptation for the actor, known for his jovial, over-the-top, zany energy).  Instead, Carrey is wonderfully naturalistic and remarkably shtick-free with playing the cold-hearted vindictiveness and spite of this old cretin.  More compellingly, by painting Scrooge with restrained and minimal strokes, Carrey makes us believe that much more in his transition from amoral SOB to deeply conflicted and melancholic loner and finally to a joyous and liberated individual.  Considering all of the film’s astonishing, tour de force imagery and animation, Carrey makes his Scrooge rise above the technology that creates him (no easy feat): the film’s real triumph (outside of its exquisite aesthetic polish) is how much humanity – flawed and all – it invests in its characters.

As immersive and spellbinding of a visual odyssey the film is,  A CHRISTMAS CAROL does have some regrettably faults, like a somewhat silly and incomprehensible montage where Scrooge himself is reduced to doll-sized form and engages in an oddball action/chase sequence (I am still trying to figure out where that came from).  Also, the music score from the typically inspired Alan Silvestri is far too conventionally handled: he slips in countless chords from traditional Christmas carols, which makes the film feel seasonal, but does not do much service to the scope and spectacle of the film’s incredible visual acuity (more than anything, it just feels too much like a tempt score than a full bodied original treatment).  Yet, those are minor criticisms, because what Zemeckis has done here is thanklessly difficult:  He has made a motion capture film that does great, faithful service to the somber, moody, and emotionally invigorating Dickensian story that we are all uniformly familiar with (contrary to the ads for the film, this is a dark and chilling film, which reflects its source).  The film certainly suffers from familiarity, which is almost an obvious given, but Zemeckis’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL is so beautiful and consummately rendered, so empowering as a technological marvel, and so gilded with the Victorian quintessence of Dickens’ ultimate tale of salvation that to easily dismiss it as another disposable holiday family flick would be to reveal the short-sided and inner Scrooge in yourself. 

  H O M E