A Christmas Carol (2009) / Animation-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG for scary images
Running time: 96 min.
Cast (voices): Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis (based on the novel by Charles Darwin)
Review published November 21, 2009
A Disney-fied version of the oft-told Charles Dickens classic Christmas story, adapted by Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, What Lies Beneath), who also directs his third performance-capture 3D adventure, after The Polar Express and Beowulf. As is Zemeckis's style, the emphasis shifts away from the intimate and familiar story to the imagery and action, and though they are stunningly realized, the opening and closing of the Charles Dickens book at the beginning and end of the film suggests that what you see in between is representative of the work of the great author. The plot elements and main characters are all there, and the story is relatively faithful, but there's a great deal of Zemeckis injected into the fright and excitement elements that permeate scenes in between the conversations.
Set in Victorian-era England, Jim Carrey (Horton Hears a Who, The Number 23) voices Ebenezer Scrooge, an aging misanthrope who scoffs at humanity while he spends his days pursuing amassing more and more wealth. Such a graceful thing as allowing his sole employee a paid day off to spend with his family on Christmas is unthinkable in his mind. On Christmas Eve, he's visited by the ghost of his old business partner, who warns him that he will be visited by three spirits of Christmas later that evening. The ghosts offer Scrooge visions of the past, present, and future, offering peeks into how he is perceived by his peers, as well as the potential indifference his death might result in due to the fact that he has shunned all those who have offered him love.
Although the title is emblazoned with a "Disney's..." behind it, Zemeckis has a darker vision than most treatments of the Dickens story, with some elements that are rare to find outside of horror films, including hideously decaying ghosts and more than a couple of jump-scares (fairly effective for a PG-rated film). It should be remembered that Dickens did not write his novel for 5-year-olds, so don't let the Disney moniker or animation fool you -- this is not made with toddlers in mind, and may be a little frightening for the more impressionable ones. One thing that I find just a little disappointing, given how realistic the portrayals tend to be, are the fantastic, unrealistic elements that often come into play. In one scene, two heavy-set people are dancing in a way that people of their size would not, including the male tossing the female into the air in a manner that no two people, no matter how fit or talented, could ever do.
While the story may suffer from being too talky in some scenes while spending too long in lengthy action scenes in others, it is gorgeously realized from a technical production standpoint. The motion-capture technique still leaves its characters with a sense of "dead eyes", although Zemeckis and the production team have corrected this with individual attention to Scrooge's details in this regard. The effects are so realistic, however, that one wonders why bother with 3D animation at all when live actors and historical period costumes would have sufficed. While it is true that 3D allows for plenty of eye-candy shots with a swooping camera floating above the rooftops of the city, into windows, and into small pipes -- things that would be difficult to convey in a live-action film -- they don't really enhance the story. One suspects that Zemeckis is so enamored of his cinematic toys he's been playing with over the last several years that he continues to think of vehicles that will allow him to tinker even more with the form, sometimes at the expense of the content.
A Christmas Carol won't go down as the final interpretation of the Dickens tale, but it is certainly still a visual delight, and effectively captures the spirit of the original work, even if it ditches the subtle wit and grit of the original in favor of broader entertainment moments. At a reported budget of $200 million, it's to be expected that Zemeckis would go for a more "mass appeal" treatment. It may not ultimately garner the status or a perennial classic, but for at least one go around, Zemeckis and company deliver a competent, high-quality film that hashes up some choice Christmas musings amid the visual splendor.
©2009 Vince Leo