Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas Carol (2009): A Review


In The Christmas Spirits...

Dear Robert Zemeckis,

You seem determined to have us all succumb to motion capture films with the same passion you have for it. Never mind that it has failed again and again. I admire the fact that you keep trying. Now you have given us A Christmas Carol, another version of this timeless tale which almost all of us know but very few of us have actually read. I hope you are proud of what you have accomplished, and that your pride will comfort you throughout this review. You have your Oscar (which you shouldn't have won) for a film that was the genesis of your fixation (which shouldn't have won either). Never one to rest on your laurels, you keep plugging along with this technology. I wish you all the best in your efforts to make films that require few if any sets or props but lots and lots of hard drive.


Rick's Cafe Texan

I am being a little facetious. A Christmas Carol isn't a bad film, and there are some things to admire. However, I can't get into motion capture the way Zemeckis has taken up with it. The film captures both the possibilities of the technology and its limitations. The question is whether they will balance each other out or will one cancel out the other.

For those of you who've not heard of the story (and yes, there may be some), it's simple. Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey), a miser's miser, is visited by three Ghosts on Christmas Eve--the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Each shows Scrooge (and the audience) how he came to be the way he is, and how he may end up. Scrooge's beaten-down employee, Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman), has a large family, but the one child important to the story is Tiny Tim (Olman again). He has some ailment that makes it hard for him to walk, but in spite of this he's a cheerful lad, who wishes "God bless us, every one" on all mankind, even Scrooge. After his long night, Scrooge discovers a new joy for life and the True Christmas Spirit.

There have been endless film versions of the story, from the iconic (the 1951 version with Alastair Sim as Scrooge) to the animated (Mickey's Christmas Carol) to the contemporary (Scrooged with Bill Murray) to the puppet (A Muppet's Christmas Carol) to the musical (Scrooge with Albert Finney in the title role). It's ubiquitous in the Christmas season and I venture to say it's one of the stories most connected with the season ('Twas the Night Before Christmas and the actual story of Christ's birth being the others). One should not be surprised that the story now has received the motion-capture treatment.

In theory, this should open up the story to all sorts of visually arresting images. Up to a point, that is the result: the shots of flying over London are beautiful, and if you look at the people from a distance, they do look like actual people. You also have a greater range with characters. This is certainly the first time I've ever seen The Ghost of Christmas Past as a candle. Zemeckis has been able to open up the story to a greater range because he isn't limited by what is PHYSICALLY possible. The resemblance to real people is times. It's on closer inspection that the resemblance ends, and the people start looking like those animatronic robots on a Disney theme ride.

Take for example Colin Firth as Scrooge's nephew Fred. As seen on screen, he looks like Colin Firth, only inflated to a point you wonder if he is suffering from an illness. Oldman as Cratchit has become almost a midget, and it's speculation whether this was done to show how small he is compared to Scrooge or just because they could make him smaller.

Whatever the reason, A Christmas Carol really is Carrey's show. It gives him the ability to do what he's always wanted to do: play many characters without being hindered by things like make-up. Carrey not only plays Scrooge (in all his various ages), but all THREE Ghosts. In fairness, it works best when he's the Ghost of Christmas Past--I didn't recognize his voice there as I did when he was the Ghost of Christmas Present.

There were problems with the film. I know Zemeckis is in a passionate love affair with motion-capture, but as much as he may want to make it work at the moment it still is not at the level to where it looks totally real. I doubt it ever will be. The result is that sometimes the believability factor breaks, as when during the past Mr. Fezziwig (Bob Hoskins) leaps and does some somersaults. Also, while it may be marketed as a family film, I think the scene that ends the Present section of the film may be quite terrifying to children. You also have a chase scene in the Future section that was totally gratuitous. Finally, I didn't like the ending. I didn't believe Scrooge's conversion. It all felt too fake, too rushed, to forced. It may be because you HAD to have it (that IS how the story ends), but somehow it didn't ring true.

Interestingly, while I saw the 3-D version, I took my glasses off from time to time and found I had no problem watching it. That, oddly, is one of its PLUSES, since unlike other 3-D spectacles (no pun intended), it works on a flat screen. However, I don't even see why they opted for 3-D when it wasn't necessary. Not even that chase scene, which was suppose to be a highlight in the Third Dimension, was impressive. I would advise AGAINST paying more for the 3-D experience since you really don't get enough bang for your buck.

As it stands, A Christmas Carol is good but not great. It won't challenge the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol (aka Scrooge), which I have long argued is the Citizen Kane of Christmas Carol adaptations. As in all technology, A Christmas Carol can work quite well on occasion. However, just like all machines, it doesn't have true emotions at its heart. There's enough to admire, but not enough to truly love.


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