A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)
Featuring Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright Penn and Bob Hoskins.
Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. 96 minutes. Rated PG.
Charles Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol” is undoubtedly one of the most-filmed pieces of literature ever.
Over generations of versions of the film, many people have their own favorite performance of the iconic curmudgeonly miser. Since Tom Ricketts first played the role in the 1908 silent version (and there were at least four silent versions of the story), hundreds of actors have played the character on film, television or stage – and everyone has their own favorite performance.
There are the old school classic versions played by Reginald Owen and Alistair Sim. More recent actors such as Patrick Stewart have also donned the nightcap and robe. If you like your Scrooge a little more tuneful, perhaps you may go for Albert Finney or Kelsey Grammer. There have been several animated Scrooges, including Walter Matthau in The Stingiest Man in Town. Personally, I was always partial to George C. Scott’s 1984 TV movie performance.
This isn’t even taking into account the many, many Scrooge-alike characters in movies that took the Christmas Carol template and twisted it into their own stories – including Scrooged, An American Christmas Carol, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, A Diva’s Christmas Carol and even A Muppet Christmas Carol.
Watching Robert Zemeckis’ bright and shiny motion capture computer-animated blockbuster version of the beloved tale, I rather doubt that many people will come to the decision that Jim Carrey is the ultimate Ebenezer Scrooge.
And though I am certainly no fan of Carrey as an actor or comedian, it is not entirely his fault.
In his last three films, Zemeckis – who was once the brilliant wunderkind director behind Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump – has decided that thanks to new motion capture computer technology, he can make films without actual actors. Or set builders. Or stunt coordinators. Or wardrobe. Or craft services.
That is not quite true. Zemeckis’ computer animated films do use actors, sort of. They are have sensors attached all over them, but they are used.
Anthony Hopkins, who appeared in the last Zemeckis film, a version of the epic poem Beowulf, complained to me about the process while he was working on that film. “There were buttons all over your head. It was a pain in the ass. They put all these little dots over you. It’s funny, you’ve got no set. You stand there with a little helmet on. You really feel literally ridiculous. Then they film you. It’s a very strange process. I don’t know why they do it that way. Why don’t they just film against a blue screen? But I guess it’s the new thing. I think eventually they won’t use actors. They’re sneaking up on us to get rid of us.”
In his third film, though, Zemeckis has honed his craft – to a certain extent. First the good news – the world of Dicken’s Christmas London is awe-inspiring. The buildings, the streets, the furniture – all are top work. Particularly sweeping scenes dipping in and out of the nooks and crannies of the old city are truly beautiful and do capture the feel of the world of the story.
However, there is still the one big problem that dogged The Polar Express and Beowulf before. Human beings just look completely fake. Disturbingly, distractingly fake. They move jerkily. They are in constant, nervous, fluid movement, even when stillness is called for. Their faces are unable to express more than the most basic emotions and they have dead, soulless eyes. It is like watching a bunch of video game avatars set loose in Olde London Towne.
This is not helped out by the fact that Zemeckis tosses in a few completely superfluous action scenes – Scrooge being rocketed to the moon, a “Honey, we shrunk the Scrooge” mini version of the miser sliding out-of-control through London streets and crashing through a bunch of icicles and even Scrooge juggling a huge barrel with his legs.
In fact, in many ways, Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol seems more like a horror film than a family parable about love and compassion versus greed. Of course there are always horror elements in the story – it is a ghost story, after all – but this new version is way too intense for children.
It is all an odd fit, because in other parts, Zemeckis is wonderfully faithful to Dicken’s artistic vision, even using much of the novella’s dialogue – which is nice after the recent attempts at modernizing the language in the Stewart and Grammer versions. It is quite obvious that Zemeckis loves and respects the source material, which makes it even more incomprehensible that he doesn’t realize that this story was so much a product of a certain time and place that it would be overwhelmed by the bells and whistles on display here.
Which brings us back to Carrey.
Just like Zemeckis is playing the story way too broadly, Carrey is chewing the scenery mightily here – and he isn’t even specifically seen as a human actor. He plays several characters here – including all the Christmas ghosts, which is disconcerting because though they all are animated in totally different ways, they all have the same face – and he doesn’t have a single subtle or insightful moment in any of the roles. How are we supposed to have any idea of whether or not Scrooge is learning his lesson when all of his lines are done in the same arch, affected way?
Not helping is that fellow overactor Gary Oldman also plays a few characters – including Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim – and his body is even more stiff and his acting is just as broad as Carrey. Plus his characters are even more generic looking that Carrey’s. It’s almost like Zemeckis has created A Christmas Carol as a Disneyland animatronics ride.
The source material and the storyline are brilliant enough that even with these flaws, A Christmas Carol is definitely watchable. However, unless you have a really short attention span and are drawn to shiny, fast-moving things, seek out a better version of this story to be your annual holiday tradition.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 6, 2009.