I think it's a valid question.
At this point, with the almost impossible to measure impact that the Charles Dickens story "A Christmas Carol" has had on Western culture, can you review the material anymore? Is it beyond review? After all, the story and the characters have been told, retold, parodied, absorbed, reconfigured, post-modernized, and retold again pretty much continuously since the story was first published. Is there a single long-running sitcom that didn't eventually get around to doing its own version of the story?
For example, there's an amazing retelling of the story that Eric Powell did for The Goon, one of the best comics currently being published, and even as I marveled over every detail of Powell's work, I couldn't help but wish that he hadn't taken up an entire issue doing it. It's omnipresent. The word "Scrooge" is no longer a name. It's a description. "That guy is a total Scrooge" works for everybody. You say that, anyone will get it. That's how much "A Christmas Carol" is part of the fabric of pop culture.
So how do you review it? When someone sets out to do a new version, what critical standards do you bring to bear? Do you just compare it to what others have done, like a laundry list of what works or doesn't, relatively speaking? I can tell you which prior versions I like. The Alastair Sim version is a favorite because I think it's very austere, very English, proper in period and style, and the emotional transformation is so well played by Sim that it works no matter how many times I see it. I am moved anew each time. I'm also partial to Richard Donner's "Scrooged," which is both very funny as a riff on the basic material and also deeply affecting. Bill Murray's transformation from jerk to joyous is one of the most convincing I've ever seen in any version of the story, and by the time he ends up in tears, Karen Allen in his arms, I always find myself a little misty as well.
That's the real key to the story, of course. It is an annual reminder that all of us could stand to slow down, disconnect a bit from the responsibilities that keep us all scrambling constantly, working around the clock in some cases. This year in particular has been the busiest year of my entire life. Just as I have reached a point where I have a family, where I have children who demand constant attention and a wife who I love more each year and who I would love to spend more time with, I find myself part of a start-up business that has absolutely taken over my life. HitFix is a 24-hour-a-day proposition, and even so, I always feel like I'm underperforming, never getting everything finished that I mean to, and that slow-motion drowning sensation has led to some crushing panic and anxiety in the last few months.
We all feel it these days. Times are hard, and jobs are scarce, and if you want to be employed, you're expected to give more of yourself than anyone else would. "A Christmas Carol" and its underlying point flies in the face of that sort of thinking. This is a story that wants you to slow down, take time for family, give back to the community and not just in terms of money, but also in terms of personal investment. Make mankind your business, the story says, and no matter how many times I've heard that, no matter how many times I've seen the story play out, when a production of "A Christmas Carol" is really cooking, it drives that point home again, and it can be affecting.
This latest version is handsomely produced, and the first thing that is clear is that Robert Zemeckis has embraced the idea that he's not producing photorealism with these motion-capture films of his. Instead, he's pushed the stylization further this time, and the result is a cast of what look like very sophisticated, very strange puppets, some with the faces of famous actors, and others more disguised. This is not a movie that looks or feels "real," but that's appropriate, since it is a heightened fantasy London that Dickens wrote about, with specters and spirits loose in the streets and the skies. I like that he gets the period detail as right as you can in a PG rated film. The real London in the time of Charles Dickens was disgusting, and every time I read about life in a city in that era, I am amazed civilization ever caught on. What Zemeckis gets right is the architecture and the style, capturing a sort of idealized version of what we all imagine when we read the work of Dickens.
I like the idea of having one actor play all three of the Ghosts of Christmas, and Carrey does a good job as Past and Present. Future is, as always, mainly just a cloak and a skeletal hand, so it's less performance and more iconography. Still, there's something thematically dead-on about all of these manifestations sharing a face with Scrooge. I'm less sure why Gary Oldman is playing Cratchit, Marley, and Tiny Tim, since that works less neatly as a thematic choice, but whatever. Obviously Zemeckis is experimenting with how unconventionally you can cast a role in performance capture. Colin Firth has a few solid scenes as Fred, the nephew whose visit first pricks Scrooge's conscience. Beyond that, almost no one makes an impression, although the way everyone seems to double or triple up on roles is impressive. Even so, everyone else is essentially human wallpaper.
This is a one-man show for the most part, and Jim Carrey is up to the task, embracing the particular challenges and freedoms of performance capture with real enthusiasm. His Scrooge is credibly feeble, physically eroded and emotionally atrophied in equal measure. I think his take on the Ghost Of Christmas Present is my favorite work of his in the movie, basically playing the phantom as Harry Knowles. But where Carrey's work fails for me is in the home stretch, when he is supposed to express that transformation, that awakening of that human part of Scrooge's heart. I don't feel it here, and it's not because it's animated. There's just not a moment where Carrey sells the change as behavior instead of text. We are told that he's changed, and there is much talk about his change and a fair bit of business to show us how much he's changed, but without seeing it ourselves, without actually witnessing the move from one Scrooge to another, it feels like the film shortchanges what may well be the one thing it has to get right.
If you've seen the trailers or the posters, you've seen that image of Scrooge whizzing around on the candle snuff, and no doubt you've worried that the whole film is going to be souped up and loud and filled with things flying at the camera to show off the 3D. To the credit of all involved, that's really not the case. You've seen the most "spectacular" moments now, and although I'm not sure the movie needs them, it also doesn't really suffer for their presence. I don't see much here that really feels like it needed to be in 3D. It makes the ghost stuff a little creepier at times, I suppose, and there's a long chase through the streets of London that feels like a demo reel more than it feels motivated, but even there, I wouldn't say it really makes the case for 3D. For someone who feels like he's spearheading a technical revolution in storytelling, Zemeckis does little in this film to advance the idea of either performance capture or 3D. If you see this in 2D, you'll be just fine, and if they had shot this live-action with Carrey doubling up on roles, it would have worked just as well. It comes down to preference, and Zemeckis shot this movie the way he wanted to, which is fine. Just don't tell me that there's something about this version that could only have been done right now, at this point in the development of cinema and technology.
I liked "A Christmas Carol." I think it's a largely faithful rendering of the text, and I think that families who go to see it together will enjoy the film's style and the overall approach to the story. I would be surprised to see this become the go-to version of the story, though. I think there are other earlier versions that will still stand superior for many fans, and this will simply become one of many. If Disney invested in this because they were hoping for an annual re-release and an easy cash cow every time the season rolls around, I think they'll be disappointed. But if they were simply hoping to let Robert Zemeckis play out his current obsessions with this type of filmmaking a bit more while telling an easy-to-market story, then mission accomplished. This and "Beowulf" and "The Polar Express" all feel like warm-up to me, and if Zemeckis wants to convince me that his time has been well-invested in these tools, then he's going to have to stop retelling me stories and use this tech to take me somewhere genuinely new.
I'm ready. Is he?
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