(Disney) Starring the voices of Jim Carey, Gary Oldman, Bob Hoskins, Colin Firth, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, Ryan Ochoa, Jacquie Barnbrook, Lesley Manville, Molly C. Quinn, Fay Masterson, Fionnula Flanagan, Leslie Zemeckis. Directed by Robert Zemeckis
No matter how badly we behave, no matter how heinous the acts we have done in our lives, there is always a possibility of a second chance. It is one of the most wonderful things about being human.
Ebeneezer Scrooge (Carey) is a miserly fellow, bitter and curmudgeonly. He is feared and despised by the citizens of London circa 1842. After his partner Jacob Marley (Oldman) dies on a Christmas Eve in 1835, Scrooge continues to operate his counting house, bullying his clerk Bob Cratchit (Oldman again). Scrooge saves particular vitriol for Christmas, which he proclaims as “humbug.”
Scrooge is visited that Christmas Eve first by his nephew Fred (Firth) who patiently invites his uncle to Christmas dinner, which is refused. Fred is puzzled as to why his uncle despises him so, but it seems to be tied to his marriage. Later, a pair of businessmen collecting for charitable donations receives Scrooge’s distinctive philosophy on life (the famous quote “Are there no jails? Are there no workhouses?”) but no cash.
Upon returning home, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley who warns Scrooge he is to be visited by three ghosts; the Ghost of Christmas Past (Carey), the Ghost of Christmas Present (ditto) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (you got it). At stake his Scrooge’s soul, and the life of Cratchit’s son Tim (Ochoa).
This is one of the most beloved and best-known stories on the planet and director Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, The Polar Express) has the tall order of making a story so known to many seem fresh and new. Most of us can quote Charles Dickens’ original story word for word and know the story backwards and forwards. With so many already-filmed versions to choose from, the public can afford to be choosy and set high standards for any new films. Making one that stands out from the crowd is no easy task.
Most versions of A Christmas Carol depend heavily on the performance of the actor playing Scrooge. Actors have generally been classically trained English thespians, but from time to time comedians (Bill Murray comes to mind) have also tackled the role. Carey is perhaps the most unusual choice for the iconic miser. I’m not particularly fond of Carey – he tends to mug around a bit in my opinion – but one can’t deny the talent. He tackles the roles of Scrooge in all his iterations, as well as all three of the ghosts. For the most part, he restrains himself but from time to time Ace Ventura shines through.
The supporting cast is pretty good. Hoskins displays bonhomie as Fezziwig, while Penn is solid in the dual roles of Belle, Scrooge’s love interest and Fanny, his sister. Better still is Oldman, whose portrayal of Bob Cratchit (complete with Cockney accent) is superb. His scene during the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come sequence mourning his son is incredibly moving.
After a great start with The Polar Express, motion capture hasn’t really lived up to its promise. The visuals are spectacular, eye-popping really. Zemeckis has a terrific visual sense and crafts a movie that captures the imagination. Unfortunately, it doesn’t capture the heart (except for the Cratchit scene mentioned above). There’s far more emphasis on spectacle than there is on the story, and some fairly important vignettes are glossed over or cut out entirely and yet Zemeckis conducts an extended hearse chase scene that is striking to look at but ultimately feels more like a placeholder for a future theme park attraction. That gives the movie a rushed feeling that I found unsettling.
The animation isn’t perfect. Cratchit’s head is disproportionate, and his daughter Martha towers over him by what appears to be about a foot and a half or more. It looks unsettling. Also, while the faces and movements are lifelike, there is a curious lifelessness to the eyes that makes the characters look a little bit like zombies. In many ways, the more clear-cut animation of Pixar and DreamWorks is preferable because it’s more consistent; you know it’s an animation so there’s a standard for realism or its lack thereof. Here, you’re expecting a more life-like quality and frankly the technology isn’t quite there yet.
People who love Jim Carey are going to enjoy this movie because you get a whole lot of him here. People who love the original Dickens tale are going to be a bit more critical and may find this a difficult pill to swallow. The 3D effects are terrific (the snow falling is particularly nice) and definitely enhance the movie nicely. However, I can’t recommend this unreservedly. All in all, the package comes in gaudy wrapping paper with an elaborate bow, but all the pretty paper in the world can’t conceal that what’s inside is a bit empty and light.
REASONS TO GO: There are some amazing visuals here, particularly the ghosts. Zemeckis puts the story on its biggest and boldest canvas ever. Oldman gives a moving performance, particularly in the Christmas Yet to Come sequence.
REASONS TO STAY: Zemeckis sacrifices story for spectacle in several instances. Some of the figures, particularly Cratchit and his daughter Martha seem to be disproportionate. The hearse chase scene is completely unnecessary and seems to be there only to provide the inspiration for an eventual theme park ride. A little Carey goes a long way.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the ghost sequences, particularly Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come might be a bit too much for impressionable sorts.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The earliest known filmed version of Dickens tale was made in 1901 by British film pioneer Robert Paul and was under three and a half minutes long. It can be seen in its entirety on the British Film Institute YouTube channel.
HOME OR THEATER: The dazzling visuals should be experienced on the big screen, preferably in the 3D presentation (and IMAX if you can get to an IMAX theater).
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: The Tale of Despereaux