I remember last year when ads for A Christmas Carol started popping up on TV, and at the time I thought, “Really? Do we need Jim Carrey’s zany Christmas adventures? Hasn’t Charles Dickens’ legacy suffered enough?” Well, I will be the first to say that I was completely wrong, and if I were the filmmakers, I would throttle the film’s incompetent promotions team. The trailers prepared the audience for a comical take on the story, but in actuality, A Christmas Carol retells Dickens’ classic story as it was meant to be told, which was as a dark ghost story. People who are tired of the sticky-sweet Christmas fare should grab a mug of hot-buttered rum and settle in for a tale of greed, ghostly visitors, and redemption.
For the Scrooges of the world who don’t know the story, A Christmas Carol follows Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey), a miserly businessman who spends his days counting his money and refusing to give a penny of it to the poor of Victorian-era London. He lashes out at his underpaid and overworked employee Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman) and his kindly nephew Fred (Colin Firth) who continues to reach out to Scrooge and invites him over for Christmas dinner. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge’s world is turned upside down when he is visited by his deceased business partner Marley (Gary Oldman) and three spirits representing Scrooge’s past, present, and future. They have come to warn him that his cold heart and love for money are securing his place in Hell if he does not change his life around soon.
Motion-capture technology has come a long way since director Zemeckis’ first venture with The Polar Express. Zemeckis’s biggest problem with The Polar Express was the facial expressions, particularly the eyes, and even though the characters’ movement was lifelike, they came off as creepy and zombie-like. They fell into the uncanny valley of being eerily lifelike and yet not human.
In A Christmas Carol, the animation for the lead characters has improved tremendously, and I can see why they opted to use it as opposed to regular CGI animation or live-action with heavy use of prosthetics and make-up. With motion capture, Jim Carrey was able to play Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, and he didn’t have to resort to goofy winking tactics like Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor or Mike Myers in Austin Powers. Each performance was unique from the overly jolly Santa-like Ghost of Christmas Present to the frightening shadow that is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Co-stars Gary Oldman, Cary Elwes, and Robin Wright also turn in strong performances, and I was excited to see a mini-reunion of the cast of The Princess Bride, even if Elwes and Wright didn’t get to have a scene together.
I only had two complaints with the animation. First, the animators got lazy with a lot of the extras and didn’t take as much time or care in creating their expressions. Many of the extras had the same lifeless look as characters from The Polar Express which is unacceptable considering how much detail they put into the rest of the film. Second, I thought that the chase scene with Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was far too long and a bit gimmicky with the 3D technology, and the scene took me out of the serious nature of the story.
Story wise, A Christmas Carol is much scarier tale, and the dialogue brought the focus back to Dickens’ strong moral center. Scrooge was not a bad person because he did not celebrate Christmas; he was a bad person because he loved money more than his fellow man. Time and again, Scrooge refuses to be charitable, and sadly, there are still people today who also believe that they do enough for the poor by paying taxes. Scrooge famously says if the poor do not want to go to the poorhouses, they should die and “decrease the surplus population.” This past week, Tennessee State Representative Curry Todd said that pregnant immigrants receiving pre-natal care would “go out there like rats and multiply.” The words and attitudes of people like Curry Todd prove that the message of A Christmas Carol is every bit as relevant today as it was first published in 1843.
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol, and I think people who were put off by the film’s goofy advertising should give the movie a chance on Blu-ray. Jim Carrey’s performance, the respectful treatment of the source material, and improved motion-capture animation make A Christmas Carol a really great holiday film.
On a final note, I love all things Christmas, and I have already asked for the soundtrack for Christmas. People who like classic Christmas music should definitely give it a listen.
I was blown away by the special features on the Blu-ray edition. They had behind-the-scenes featurettes, theatrical trailers, and all the usual fare, but what made this release really special is their look inside motion capture work. They included the raw footage of the actors doing their motion capture work, and on the Blu-ray, you can watch almost the entire movie with the actors in front of green screens or picture-in-picture with the completed movie. Production nerds will want to watch the movie all over again to see the work and care that went into the film.
"A Christmas Carol" is on sale November 16, 2010 and is rated PG. Animation, Drama, Horror. Directed by Bob Hoskins, Robert Zemeckis. Written by Charles Dickens, Robert Zemeckis. Starring Bob Hoskins, Cary Elwes, Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, Jim Carrey, Robin Wright Penn.