Christmas Carol, A (United States, 2009)

November 07, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Christmas Carol, A Poster

Review based on a 2-D (standard) screening.

If I ever wanted to know what A Christmas Carol might look like as a high-end video game, I need search no farther than this motion picture, which takes the Dickens classic and converts it into something that looks and feels like it belongs on a PS3. I suspect devotees of the original story are going to be split over this movie. On the one hand, some of the visuals are amazing and it remains largely faithful to the source text. On the other hand, there's just enough inappropriate humor, out-of-place action, and animation showiness to give one pause. There's little doubt that the visual razzle-dazzle usurps the emotional element - you can feel immersed in the world, but remain distanced from the characters. Still, the motion capture animation is top-notch and it's hard not to be impressed with what Robert Zemeckis has wrought, even if there's the occasional sense he's pandering to an audience that can't get through a 90 minute story without a few yuks and a chase sequence.

When it comes to Christmas stories, none is more ubiquitous than A Christmas Carol, which has been adapted in just about every imaginable permutation. The two most beloved are arguably the 1951 version starring Alistair Sim and the 1984 made-for-TV one with George C. Scott. According to IMDb, the first time A Christmas Carol reached the screen was in 1901. Since then, there have been countless "straight" editions, a musical with Albert Finney (1970's Scrooge), a parody with Bill Murray (1988's Scrooged), and even a loose romantic comedy adaptation earlier this year (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past). Patrick Stewart has done a fabulous one-man stage show. The Muppets have gotten into the act, as have Mickey Mouse, Mister Magoo, and The Flintstones. And dozens of TV shows have used A Christmas Carol as the skeleton for a seasonal episode. So, although Robert Zemeckis' use of motion capture may be the first to apply this technique to Scrooge and company, he has entered a very, very crowded field.

For anyone who improbably doesn't know the story, here it is in a nutshell: Money lender Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) is the most miserly of skinflints - he complains about giving his clerk, Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman), a paid day off for Christmas. When it comes to celebrating the holiday, his one-word refrain, spoken to his nephew, Fred (Colin Firth), say it all: Humbug! One Christmas Eve, however, he receives four supernatural visitors whose goal is to affect a fundamental change in Scrooge. The first ghost is that of his old business partner, Jacob Marley (Oldman), now seven years dead. He arrives weighed down by the chains forged through long years of coldness and avarice. Next to arrive is the Ghost of Christmas Past (Carrey), who takes Scrooge on a tour of the Christmases of his youth. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Carrey) allows Scrooge to glimpse how Fred and Bob Cratchit are spending their day tomorrow. And The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, a voiceless specter, points a finger at a lonely tombstone in a bleak cemetery.

This is Zemeckis' third motion capture animated film, and it tops what he has previously achieved with Polar Express and Beowulf. It's available in 3-D, but even in 2-D, it's easy to see that a lot of stuff is rushing by and being tossed at the audience. The figures in A Christmas Carol look almost real - pretty much on par with those I saw last weekend in a new PS3 game, Uncharted 2, which once again reminds me of the narrowing gap between high-end video games and animated movies. The voice work is uniformly excellent, with Jim Carrey and Gary Oldman essaying a variety of roles, and Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Colin Firth, and Cary Elwes lending not only their vocal stylings to their parts but their physical likenesses as well. The design of Victorian London is masterful. During the opening credits, I felt like I was undergoing an aerial tour of the long-ago city. Of all the great A Christmas Carols, this one may be the most visually stunning.

The production lacks a certain heart, however. It hits all the notes but, despite playing them with technical proficiency, there's a lack of emotion. I didn't care about Scrooge's transformation in this version the way I have in some of the others. Perhaps it's because things are a little rushed. Or perhaps because there are some weird interludes, like the sequence when a miniature Scrooge, sounding like Alvin the Chipmunk, is involved in an action chase. I found myself groping for my PS3 controller until I remembered that this was a movie, not a video game. Maybe this sort of thing is necessary to keep younger children from becoming restless during what is essentially a character-based story. Then again, there are enough disturbing images that it's questionable whether any child under 10 should be taken to see A Christmas Carol in the first place. This is as "hard" as a PG rating can get.

Alan Silvestri's music merits a mention; it's possibly the most "Christmasy" score I can remember, incorporating cues from about a dozen popular Christmas carols (in particular, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing", "Joy to the World", and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen") with his own seasonally appropriate compositions. None of the tunes are anachronistic, so they fit with the setting and represent an effective complement to the film's impeccable visuals.

In the ever-expanding pantheon of adaptations of Dickens' beloved story, Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol is the most technically adept and probably the most sumptuous, but it's not the most engrossing or endearing. It replaces charm and depth with spectacle and bling. It's far from essential but it's also not unwelcome, especially at this time of the year when an accomplished version of A Christmas Carol is preferable a half-baked new holiday story. There's something to be said for the power of a classic, even if it has been given an imperfect makeover.

Christmas Carol, A (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 2009-11-06
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Scary Images)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1