Posted: 11/06/2009


A Christmas Carol


by Matt Fagerholm

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Nothing gets me in the holiday spirit quite like Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Ever since its first publication in December of 1843, it has proven to be the gift that keeps on giving. The simplicity and universality of its themes have made it not only a holiday perennial, but an ageless parable that stands as a constant source of comfort and rejuvenation. For most people, their favorite cinematic version of the story often depends on the one they grew up with. So many actors have delivered timeless performances as Scrooge—not just Alastair Sim, but Reginald Owen, George C. Scott and Seymour Hicks. There have also been some marvelous re-tellings of the tale for children—not just from the Muppets, but Mr. Magoo (whose songs were so stirring, they could’ve been on Broadway). There’s always room for a new interpretation of Dickens’s classic, as long as it takes a wholly fresh approach to the material.

Robert Zemeckis’s Christmas Carol clearly belongs in that category. It is the filmmaker’s third venture into motion capture storytelling, and it proves to be his most assured and dramatically satisfying to date. Though it fails to pack the emotional wallop of the finest “Carol” adaptations, it succeeds in fully enveloping the audience within the haunted psyche of its main character. Few filmmakers have ever focused with such singular attention on the character of Scrooge himself, and his repressed feelings of guilt which are represented by the ghosts who visit him. It was an ingenious decision to cast Jim Carrey, one of the most inventive performers in cinema history, as Scrooge and all three ghosts. It allows the character to literally interact with himself, and Zemeckis comes up with some brilliant visual flourishes that link Scrooge with each of the apparitions. There are also some clever double-casting choices within the ensemble: Gary Oldman plays both Bob Cratchit and Jacob Marley (who stand as powerful reminders of Scrooge’s wrongdoings), and Robin Wright Penn plays the two women in Scrooge’s life who knew him before his heart turned cold.

Zemeckis has always been a visual artist at his core. Some of the most memorable sequences in his films simply involve the camera exploring space with a freedom that would be impossible without the assistance of special effects (two obvious examples of this are the openings of Forrest Gump and Contact). He’s also obsessed with time travel, and as Zemeckis has admitted in interviews, “A Christmas Carol” is the greatest time travel story of all (sorry, H.G. Wells). As Scrooge is whisked through an ever-changing landscape of memories and premonitions, Zemeckis envisions the action with a liberating abandon that could only occur in this animated format. The visual texture in Carol is so spectacular, and the depths of its elegant 3D transfer are so dramatic, that the film demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. This film was made to be experienced in IMAX 3D.

The consistent problem with Zemeckis’s preferred technology is that it captures the physical performance of his actors without ever quite capturing their soul. There’s a coldness to his human characters, particularly around the eyes, that makes them seem eerily lifeless. What makes Carol a considerable upgrade is the performance by Carrey, which is easily the most expressive and emotionally resonant ever to be motion captured. Unlike The Polar Express’s stunt casting of Tom Hanks in multiple roles, Carol has a clear purpose for having Carrey play against himself, and he is more than up to the challenge. His performance is entirely devoid of the scenery-chewing shtick that clogged Ron Howard’s miserable Grinch. With a voice evoking the distinctive timbre of Alastair Sim, and a twisted hunch evoking the physical presence of Reginald Owen, Carrey entirely disappears into his character. It is as serious and mature a performance as any the actor has ever delivered, and it is one of his best.

Zemeckis’s entire production is more serious and mature than one would expect, especially since it’s being advertised as Disney’s A Christmas Carol. Regardless of its warm message at the end, this is an uncompromising ghost story with some bone-chilling imagery guaranteed to send viewers jumping from their seat. Most kids will be enthralled, their parents will be fascinated, and the tiniest of tykes will be freaked. If “Disney’s Christmas Carol” is what you seek, rent the Mickey Mouse version. If mindless Carrey slapstick is what you crave, rent The Grinch at your own risk. But if you’re looking for a refreshingly artistic approach to the beloved yarn, which utilizes the most cutting-edge effects of the day to enrich the themes in the timeless text, look no further than Robert Zemeckis’s Christmas Carol, and make sure to look for it in 3D!

Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.

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