What I’m Watching: Disney’s A Christmas Carol

To call Charles DickensA Christmas Carol the greatest Christmas story of all time would be a matter of opinion. To say that it’s the most often adapted, lampooned, parodied and pastiched Christmas story of all time would be inarguable. Off the top of my head, the actors and characters I can think of that have played Ebenezer Scrooge (or his equivalent) include Alastair Sim, Bill Murray, Patrick Stewart, Kelsey Grammar, Michael Caine, Scrooge McDuck, Quincy Magoo, Fred Flintstone, Cosmo G. Spacely, Cicely Tyson, Alex P. Keaton, Dr. Floyd J. Floyd Jr., Alvin Seville, Tim Curry, Barbie, and Willie Lumpkin — and that doesn’t even begin to account for the countless live stage editions of the play that have been produced for over a century and a half. If we’re going to start including stories that are simply derivative and not a full-blown adaptations, we can add Gregory Maguire‘s Lost (about a supposed descendant of Scrooge haunted by a different sort of ghost), The Autobiography of Santa Claus (as told to Jeff Guinn, which shows Santa himself inspiring Dickens to write the original novel), and a Fantastic Four story by Art Adams in which Franklin Richards helps the long-suffering ghost of Jacob Marley to finally find peace.

Possibly because there are so damn many different versions of the story, it never really bothers me when a new version is made. It doesn’t fall under my typical “I hate remakes” philosophy, because it’s so difficult to point at any one version of the story as “definitive,” except of course for Dickens’ original. When a new movie, TV special, or comic book is produced I just want to see how the story is being told this time. The specific “this time” in question is the new Disney version directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring, predominantly, Jim Carrey.

In this version, Zemeckis uses the same motion-capture technology he used in The Polar Express and Beowulf to cast Carrey not only as Scrooge, but as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future as well. There’s little point in recapping the story — we all know it — so I’ll just say that the film is a pretty faithful adaptation of the original novel. It tells the story well, although there are a few minor changes here and there.

Most of the changes seem to be done for the sake of the computer animation, and this is where there is a bit of a weakness. In his previous two MC films, Zemeckis had a bad habit of crafting scenes that didn’t really serve the plot, but instead just existed as a showcase of the animation itself. The long “ticket dancing in the wind” sequence in The Polar Express is the best example of this. This film doesn’t do that nearly as much as the others, and most of the scenes where it does happen work fairly well with the plot — one of the ghosts whisking Scrooge across the city or through time, for example, is a very good way to showcase that technology without it feeling tacked-on. The one point where it does feel superfluous comes during the “Christmas Future” scenes, when Scrooge is shrunken down and goes through a slip-n-slide routine through the drains of London. It’s an unnecessary scene that jolts you totally out of the film at a critical moment. Although there is certainly room in this story for a little humor, the Christmas Future segment is not the place.

My other big complaint comes in some of the character animation. Again, Zemeckis’s big problem in the past is an inability to conquer the “Uncanny Valley.” In other words, the more realistic an animated figure is, the harder it is for the viewer to accept the life in it. For some reason, the more cartoonish a figure is, the easier it is to “feel” it as alive. Scrooge and the Ghosts, as the less realistic-looking characters in the movie, are much more lively and energetic than most of the others. Although we get some nice work by fine actors like Gary Oldman, Bob Hoskins, Cary Elwes, and Robin Wright Penn (each of whom plays a few different characters), their more realistic figures ironically just don’t “feel” as alive as the ghosts.

I realize this all sounds like I disliked the movie, but that’s actually not the case. Both of these two problems were much less than in Zemeckis’s earlier films. He’s improving, he just still has room to go. Carrey, to his credit, does a really good Scrooge. He lets out a little of the old-school Carrey comedy only when necessary, mostly playing the character straight and fitting the curmudgeonly mold wonderfully. The animation itself, except for the aforementioned Uncanny Valley, is excellent. The cityscape of London and the countrysides are beautiful, the snow feels almost real, and the supernatural effects are astonishing. I saw the movie in IMAX 3-D, and while I’m still not totally sold on 3-D as being a natural progression for the motion picture industry, IMAX most definitely is. See it in IMAX if at all possible.

Alan Silvestri, Zemeckis’s frequent partner, composes the musical score. He also does exemplary work. Much of the music uses traditional Christmas carols as the base, building familiar themes into wonderful, powerful music. I saw the movie Saturday morning and bought the soundtrack Saturday afternoon.

One last comment — not a complaint, just an FYI. Don’t be fooled by the fact that this is a Disney movie, a Christmas movie, or an animated movie. This is not a movie for small children. Before the 20th century, Christmas ghost stories were intended to scare the crap out of the audience. Zemeckis goes old-school here. Some kids will be screaming halfway through Marley’s ghost. They won’t make it to Christmas Yet to Come. You know your kids better than I do — decide for yourself if they’re mature enough to handle it before you buy the ticket.

Ah yes, before I forget! This summer, Disney went around the country with a “train tour” featuring tons of pre-production stuff from this movie, including models, design artwork, and original artifacts from Dickens himself. I was lucky enough to check it out in August, along with my brother, sister, and their respective spouses. If you’re interested in that stuff, you can look at all the pictures we took in my Flickr gallery.

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December 2009

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