Didn’t Charles Dickens use to be the author of A Christmas Carol? Well, now it’s Disney’s A Christmas Carol that opens later this week. Even that’s a misnomer. It should be “Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol.” This is not nitpicking, for authorship goes to the heart of what’s good and what’s not good about this latest cinematic installment of the classic Christmas story.
When it comes to name recognition, you cannot ask for more at the holiday season than Disney and A Christmas Carol, so a potent boxoffice is assured. Putting Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman and Colin Firth on the marquee only adds to the window dressing.
Now, about who’s the author here: In one sense, this is a most faithful interpretation of Dickens’ 1843 novella. Indeed, nearly all the dialogue is lifted from the original text. But this also is writer-producer-director Zemeckis’ third motion-capture film following Beowulf and The Polar Express. It has been shot and, on accommodating screens, will be projected in Disney’s trademarked Digital 3D.
So, taking a few cues from Dickens and with the latest in digital technology at the creators’ disposal, this movie version revels in effects: Ethereal, menacing spirits burst through locked doors; frightening visions terrify Scrooge; and images of wild horses, twisted human forms and coal-black dwellings rife with crime, filth and misery are linked by flights through London’s cityscape and over countrysides that lift from Harry Potter movies as much as from Dickens.
Initially, all this serves to invigorate an old war horse. One is reminded that what Ebenezer Scrooge experiences — when the chained ghost of his long-dead partner and then three spirits assault him in his own bedroom — is horror in the true sense. So this is a very dark tale, a tour of a miserly, misanthropic man’s soul, and Zemeckis’ film does reclaim this aspect of a story that has become more of a cheery cartoon in modern retellings.
But as the spirits escort Scrooge through his sorry life, Zemeckis gradually makes this Christmas Carol his own. But as he does, with his intense reliance and belief in movie technology, this auteur shuns the beating heart of Dickens’ story.
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is about emotions. It’s about how emotions can get stunted and tramped down, how they can be revived and how empathy and affection can bring joy to the human soul. One will find none of that here.
Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol is, in its essence, a product reel, a showy, exuberant demonstration of the glories of motion capture, computer animation and 3D technology. On that level, it’s a wow. On any emotional level, it’s as cold as Marley’s Ghost.
Motion capture allows an impressive cast — along with Carrey, Oldman and Firth, there’s Cary Elwes, Robin Wright Penn, Bob Hoskins and Fionnula Flanagan — to play multiple roles. For instance, Carrey is not only Scrooge at every age, he is the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, and Oldman plays Scrooge’s meek but cheerful clerk, Bob Cratchit, as well as his sickly son, Tiny Tim.
You certainly can justify this. The ghosts are aspects and extensions of Scrooge’s personality, and a son should mirror his father. But gimmick casting leads to gimmick acting. With vocal tricks and accents, CGI-distorted faces and figures and exaggerated body language, the movie robs Dickens’ vivid, prototypical characters of any sense of being living, breathing flesh. They become caricatures in a Christmas pageant.
The worst offense to the spirit of Dickens comes with Tiny Tim. He, more than any other character in this tale, represents its true spirit. In the Zemeckis version, he’s a dress extra who tiresomely exclaims, “God bless us, everyone!”
So deck the halls with praise for the crew — cinematographer Robert Presley, designer Doug Chiang, animation supervisor Jenn Emberly, visual effects supervisor George Murphy and Alan Silvestri for his robust score. But a rousing humbug to those who confuse the media for the message.
Opens: Friday, Nov. 6 (Disney)
Production: Walt Disney Pictures, ImageMovers Digital
Cast: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright Penn, Bob Hoskins, Fionnula Flanagan
Director-screenwriter: Robert Zemeckis
Based on the novel by: Charles Dickens
Producers: Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke
Director of photography: Robert Presley
Production designer: Doug Chiang
Music: Alan Silvestri
Animation supervisor: Jenn Emberly
Visual effects supervisor: George Murphy
Editor: Jeremiah O’Driscoll
Rated PG, 96 minutes