Lesson learned – A Christmas Carol review

A Christmas Carol – Starring Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman and Colin Firth. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Rated PG. Originally published November 5, 2009. By Simon Miraudo.

Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is technically perfect. And so it should be. The director has spent the better part of the decade refining motion-capture technology for this very film; to capture the maniacally expressive Jim Carrey and turn him into Ebenezer Scrooge as well as the three Christmas ghosts who haunt him. Every inch of London circa 1800 has been stunningly recreated from within a bank of interconnected, ever-rendering computers. As a result, this is perhaps the closest we’ve ever gotten to an entirely faithful rendition of A Christmas Carol. However (and it’s a big however), Dickens’ tale is not famous for its stunning depiction of 19th century London. It’s famous for being one of the truest and most affecting morality tales ever told; a frightening, devastating, yet heart-warming story about what it means to be a good human being. The thing is, in Zemeckis’ Christmas Carol, there isn’t a human being in sight.

Motion-capture (or mo-cap as we’ll be referring to it from here on) has been met with equal amounts of acclaim and disdain since the technology debuted. When used to bring animals or inhuman characters to life, as in King Kong, Lord of the Rings and even District 9, it can be a stunning tool that aids the storytelling. Zemeckis is not happy with inhuman characters though. He is constantly in pursuit of capturing actors and animating them onscreen in slightly modified forms. It’s a valiant task. However, instead of giving us photo-realistic CG characters, or even slightly caricatured animated humans (as in Up or The Incredibles), he slides into the uncanny valley, introducing us to supposedly-realistic ‘humans’ that are both too human and not human enough.

Before I go on, a quick recap of the story that has been covered by everyone from The Muppets to The McConaughey. Ebenezer Scrooge has shuffled spitefully through his life, placing an emphasis on money over mateship. Living a life of isolation, he particularly despises Christmas, in which the spirit of poverty-stricken London is high. On the night before Christmas, he is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who each try to warm his icy cockles and warn him away from a life without love.

How I wished throughout the entirety of this film that I was not seeing an almost perfect animated rendering of Jim Carrey, but instead a live-action version of the talented actor. I’d much rather watch him transform into elderly Ebenezer with his body; the greatest acting tool he has. Carrey throws himself courageously into the role, but to no avail. His voice work is subtle and stunning. I honestly believe that had Zemeckis gone the live-action route, there would be whispers of an Oscar with Carrey’s name on it. But he didn’t, so there won’t.

Carrey is not the only actor working hard for Zemeckis. The great Gary Oldman plays Bob Cratchit (Scrooge’s put-upon employee), Jacob Marley (the ghost of Scrooge’s former business partner), and even Tiny Tim (Cratchit’s crippled son). Phew. Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn and Cary Elwes fill in the rest of the cast, each playing multiple small roles. Colin Firth also pops up as Scrooge’s nephew Fred. What a talented cast! What a talented director! What a great, great story for them all to sink their teeth into! Sigh.

Zemeckis does deserve points for his bravery. His adaptation is the straightest, most adult retelling of the Dickens’ tale I can recall. There are few laughs; not that the film is striving to make the audience chuckle. In fact, the picture edges closer to horror than comedy; some scenes are downright scary. I personally feel that Zemeckis’ take is too serious. There is no joy throughout the entire proceedings; not even in the final scenes as Scrooge experiences his epiphany.

Speaking of epiphanies, you’d be forgiven for not noticing Scrooge even have one in this film. What a shame, because in the end, the epiphany is the essence of A Christmas Carol. Throughout the adventure we look back on Scrooge’s life, understand where he has come from and why he is the way he is, and then he too understands why he must turn over a new leaf. No such revelation occurs in Zemeckis’ version; or perhaps I just didn’t notice it. Must be that pesky mo-cap again. The blame well and truly rests on the director’s decision to tell the story with this technology. It feels so unnatural; slightly off. We cannot engage with or care about these characters. All that is left is to sit back and ritually tick the checklist in our mind of the events that take place in Dickens’ tale. With a price tag of $175 million, Zemeckis might have even been able to pinch some pennies by abandoning the mo-cap and filming A Christmas Carol in live action. Hmm, I sound a little like Scrooge. Bah humbug!


Check out my other reviews here.

A Christmas Carol arrives on DVD and Blu-ray November 24, 2010.

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