A Christmas Carol Review

If you don’t already know the story of A Christmas Carol by now, well… It might not be your fault, but it is an impressive feat. As one of the most well-known stories in the world, Charles Dickens’ 166-year-old story of redemption is one that has been adapted into countless plays, movies and television specials; including a Disney cartoon I fondly remember (with Scrooge McDuck playing the part of Ebenezer Scrooge, of course).

Even if you don’t know the story, surely you recognize elements of it. The grumpy Scrooge, the three Christmas ghosts, the poor family with a dying kid, the scary confrontation at a graveyard, the sickeningly sweet ending. It is the very definition of a classic. Scrooge, played by Jim Carrey, is a rich grinch desperately in need of learning the spirit of charity and giving embedded in Christmas. He does one Christmas Eve after a foreboding visit by The Ghost of Christmas Past, who shows Scrooge his former Christmas experiences; The Ghost of Christmas Present, who shows how Scrooge’s family and friends spend Christmas; and The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who presents a sobering vision of how others react to Scrooge’s death.

So when Robert Zemeckis chose to contribute one more version using a big budget and the latest of computer wizardry, what exactly is he adding to the famous tome? Apparently nothing more than frantic movements and bloated chase scenes.

A Christmas Carol has last this long because of the universal moral it contains, which condemns greed and encourages giving. It makes for a timely tale—Scrooge’s moral lesson would make a fun companion to Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story—but that’s not why it’s a favorite fodder for adaptations. For that you can thank Dickens’ skeleton-bare plot, which keeps Scrooge’s transformation to its bare minimum. He’s greedy, he learns what he did wrong, he learns guilt, he learns regret, then voila, he’s a new man. Different filmmakers can come in and visualize Scrooge’s journey as they see fit. Zemeckis’ approach is to liven it up by keeping the camera in constant motion. His Christmas Carol is sweeping, swooping and bouncing off the walls—turning a morality play into an insecure high-flying adventure.

Some sequences work because Zemeckis commits to making the film as creepy as possible. When the ghost of Jacob Marley visits Scrooge to warn him of the three Christmas spirits, the film doesn’t try to be anything but a horror movie. Likewise with Christmas Yet to Come, an embodiment of death, whose arrival is signaled by the disturbing death of the Ghost of Christmas Present. It’s not a pleasant death scene.

Others, however, are such unnecessary and inappropriate transitions that it’s baffling why—other than to brag about the animation’s potential—that Zemeckis even bothered. This includes The Ghost of Christmas Past propelling Scrooge into the atmosphere like a rocket and The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come summoning a dark chariot to hound Scrooge around London in a long and largely boring chase sequence. Why these scenes exist is a mystery bigger than Santa's delivery timeframe.

There is an equal split between effective dramatization and frivolous crap added into the story to make it a livelier cartoon. It’s too bad that second half exists, because Carrey’s performance as Scrooge and Gary Oldman’s as Bob Cratchit bring Dickens’ dialogue to life with captivating believability, hence the film’s best scenes are those quiet interior ones that Zemeckis simply lifts from the novella verbatim. In these scenes, Zemeckis lets his visuals breathe and his animated characters appear the most convincing; owing much to the impressive motion-capture that retains the physical performances, as opposed to just their voices. But his constant attempts to reach realism in the human models is still fruitless. They’re just as creepy and lifeless as ever. Watching two characters huge is like watching two dead-eyed dolls bang together.

The Polar Express was a creepy bore, while Beowulf was a fun revisionist epic (mostly thanks to the strange satiric humor and brutish glee in Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary’s script). A Christmas Carol is simply defunct. It’s too stilted to be fun, too erratic to take seriously, and as a Christmas movie it has nothing new to offer. I’m glad this comes out before the real holiday season, so people have about two months to forget it.

"A Christmas Carol" opens November 6, 2009 and is rated PG. Animation, Children & Family, Fantasy. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Robert Zemeckis (screenplay), Charles Dickens (source material). Starring Bob Hoskins, Cary Elwes, Colin Firth, Fionnula Flanagan, Gary Oldman, Jim Carrey, Robin Wright Penn.

Nov
05
2009
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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