REVIEW: “A Christmas Carol” (***1/2)

Posted by · 4:01 pm · November 5th, 2009

A Christmas CarolFilmmaker Robert Zemeckis’s allegiance to performance-capture technology these last few years has begun to wear thin for some.  But the fascinating thing to note is an artist improving his craft before our very eyes over the course of three separate productions.

“The Polar Express” in 2004 didn’t hit the mark for a great many, the “uncanny valley” of its characters’ glossy, somewhat lifeless expressions a considerable liability.  But it was the beginnings of a new process Zemeckis was bound and determined to master.

“Beowulf” in 2007 was a big step forward, though the director perhaps got a little carried away with consistent, gimmicky elements meant to emboss the 3D aspect of the film.  But you could see the improvement.

A typical complaint of the technology is that it comes off a bit arbitrary, or that it drowns out the work of actors.  But the value of the process that is too hastily dismissed is that it allows an artist to tell a story in ways rather unfathomable under traditional filmmaking techniques.

With “A Christmas Carol,” a performance-capture adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic tale, Zemeckis proves that point explicitly.  And as far as refining his medium of choice goes, I have to say he’s close.  VERY close.

The film is faithful to its source to the point of reverence.  Jim Carrey tackled Ebenezer Scrooge beneath a shroud of tiny motion-capture sensors and the wiry animated curmudgeon on the screen is what came out the other end.  The actor also takes on the roles of Scrooge throughout the years, from childhood, through adolescence, young adulthood to the crotchety old man he is now.

The audience is of course whisked away on this tour with the misanthrope by Dickens’s three Yuletide spirits — the ghosts of Christmas past, present and yet to come — each of them uniquely rendered and also performed by Carrey, giving the actor a grand total of eight roles to inhabit.

(from left) Gary Oldman and Gary Oldman in A Christmas CarolZemeckis makes great use of his cast in this way, doubling and tripling them up with various tasks throughout.  Acting chameleon Gary Oldman takes on Bob Cratchit, the ghost of Jacob Marley and even Tiny Tim, for instance.

This, of course, is another added benefit of performance-capture, the ability to allow an actor to perform within a different vessel.  Given Carrey’s trademark physicality, the technology suits him more than it has prior Zemeckis collaborators.

And the performance is actually quite remarkable.  Carrey mumbles and spits Dickens’s dialogue like a grand stage actor might, caught in the emotion and spectacle of each moment, effortlessly carrying the audience with him on his tour of catharsis.

The film itself is wonderfully imaginative, Zemeckis digging deep to offer unique visuals to a familiar story, and yet it takes on a near-definitive quality throughout.  No doubt it will become a staple of the holiday season for younger generations who have yet to receive “their” Scrooge.  But let it be known, Zemeckis isn’t afraid of a little edge.

It makes complete sense to promote a film like “A Christmas Carol” as a saccharine-soaked holiday romp, but there is a darkness here, lifted dutifully from the source in some sense, that is unmistakable.  It’s a darkness other adaptations have delicately discarded, even if the residue remained in some instances, and it gives Zemeckis’s version an instant air of legitimacy that some viewers might not expect.

In particular, the depiction of the story’s allegorical twins Ignorance and Want, presented by the ghost of Christmas present, as well as the ensuing action of the sequence, amplify the sense that Zemeckis is wary of diluting a message that is more powerful painted in ominous strokes.

(from left) Jim Carrey and Jim Carrey in A Christmas CarolBut the joy is the ride, and Zemeckis, ever the head-in-the-clouds showman, takes you on one as only he can do.  From “Romancing the Stone” to “Back to the Future,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” to even “Forrest Gump,” Zemeckis has always played up a sense of epic adventure in his work.  These works obviously don’t carry the prestige of some efforts, but they certainly shouldn’t be dismissed as frivolous entertainment either.

And “A Christmas Carol” fits in nicely with that oeuvre.  It’s one of 2009’s wildest rides, and one of the most enjoyable times to be had in a cinema this year.

→ 10 Comments Tags: , , , | Filed in: Reviews

10 responses so far

  • 1 11-05-2009 at 4:08 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Loved it Kris — great write up — agree that Zemeckis has grown artistically and withe technology through the years — as a fan of “The Polar Express” I was dubious about another Christmas film, let alone the classic Dickens work, but he did it, and Carrey is marvelous, a wonder to behold — one gripe, Disney’s A Christmas Carol??? Really?? Last time I checked Dickens wrote the thing.

  • 2 11-05-2009 at 4:46 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    strange its getting such average reviews from most, my only big question, have they fixed the dead eyes?

  • 3 11-05-2009 at 4:51 pm

    daveylow said...

    I can’t stand this kind of grotesque animation.

  • 4 11-05-2009 at 4:58 pm

    Jim T said...

    I’m so glad you liked it although you also like Julie and Julia a lot. I want to see this because of yu and Ebert. I want to believe you two. I mean, I had high hopes until the trailer arrived and now my hopes are up again. Please tell me you think the trailer does the movie a disservice.

  • 5 11-05-2009 at 8:43 pm

    Chris138 said...

    Really glad to hear you liked this. I just read Ebert’s 4 star review. I’m a fan of The Polar Express, although I know it got mixed reactions when it initially came out. I’m really looking forward to seeing this, though.

  • 6 11-06-2009 at 6:23 am

    One Movie, Five Views said...

    I agree with Kris and Ebert on this one. Great movie.

    Our reviews are now up at One Movie, Five Views. We all loved it – **** stars (out of 4). Our consensus was:

    “A stunning new achievement from Robert Zemeckis and ImageMoversDigital. This is a visually amazing, close adaptation of Charles Dicken’s famous book. See it – in 3D or IMAX if you can. **** (Out of 4)”

    If you want to read our full reviews – Here’s a link:

  • 7 11-06-2009 at 7:49 am

    Ben said...

    I’m a big Zemeckis fan, particularly of his stop motion work, and look forward to seeing this today.

  • 8 11-06-2009 at 11:43 am

    El Rocho said...

    I agree. It’s a great film. I loved ‘Polar Express’, loved ‘Beowulf’ and now this one. Zemeckis keeps one-up-ing himself. But I still don’t know what the hype over 3D is. I really couldn’t care less about it. Sure, ‘Coraline’ and ‘Ice Age 3’ were neat in 3D and fun, as is this ‘Xmas Carol’, but, personally, do yourselves a favor and see it in 2D. It’s just as good. If not better. I do feel 3D takes away the color and visual splendor that 2D can, I feel, only deliver.

    But I digress. I thoroughly enjoyed Zemeckis’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ and look forward to anything else he has to offer us in the future. He’s a great, natural storyteller.

  • 9 11-06-2009 at 3:51 pm

    Carole Ford said...

    Looking forward to seeing it! I’m always up for a new version of A Christmas Carol