Movie Review – A Christmas Carol (2009)
by HELEN GEIB
A Christmas Carol is the responsibility of Robert Zemeckis, who wrote the screenplay, directed, and chose to make the film using his pet technology of performance-capture animation. He has accomplished the incredible feat of sapping the warmth and spirit from Dickens’ justly beloved story. The visual technique is not the only thing lifeless and cartoonish about this Carol.
The film moves through the familiar scenes like it’s ticking them off a list. The pro forma introductory scenes are particularly bad in this respect; the pacing is leaden and the actors’ delivery of the famous lines is stilted. The pace picks up somewhat when Marley’s ghost appears, providing as it/he does the first excuse for Zemeckis to indulge in special effects. However, the only time the proceedings really come to life is in a long chase that occurs in the ghost of Christmas future segment. Scrooge, alternately running wildly and slipping and sliding, is pursued through the streets at night by a hearse drawn by two demon horses. He is then inexplicably shrunk to the size of a rat, taking refuge in a drainpipe before being pursued over rooftops before falling a few stories to land in the bundle of his bed-curtains on its way to being sold by his char.
Needless to say this segment has its source in Zemeckis’ imagination. It does nothing to advance the story, although as a standalone action sequence it may possibly be exciting in 3-D (I was reluctant to pop for the 3-D surcharge and so this review is of the 2-D version of the film). A cynic might suspect it was included to provide material for a tie-in Disney theme park ride.
The animation is a mixed bag. The cityscapes evoke merry olde Englande greeting card illustrations, a not displeasing effect, and animation is a good medium for bringing ghostly visitations to the screen. Dickens’ gallery of grotesques is also well-suited to animation since it permits an appropriately extreme exaggeration of features and limbs. Fortunately for the film his character dominates, Scrooge old and young is included in that gallery. On the other hand, realistic characters like Scrooge’s nephew Fred, the charitable gentlemen, the Cratchit children, and bystanders in the streets just look creepy.
Zemeckis has done something odd and off-putting with the casting. All of the actors play two to several roles. Jim Carrey plays Scrooge at all stages in his life, which is fine, but also– in a piece of psychoanalyzing that does not help the film- the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and yet to come.
Much worse, in addition to playing Bob Cratchit, Gary Oldman contributes the voice of Tiny Tim, amplifying the creepiness of the performance-capture animation of the child character by several thousand percent. Robin Wright Penn is both Scrooge’s former fiancé Belle and his sister Fan, which is creepy in another way. Cary Elwes plays several minor supporting roles, which is simply pointless (unless the point was to skimp on actors’ salaries). In the most puzzling and peculiar casting, Oldman is also Marley of all characters, while Bob Hoskins is both Fezziwig (in a depressingly brief appearance) and… the grotesque pawnbroker.
Carrey is a good Scrooge, while Oldman, Hoskins, Colin Firth (who plays Fred), and Fionnula Flanagan (who plays the char) are ideal for a Dickens adaptation. The most depressing aspect of A Christmas Carol is that a good Carol might have been made with this same cast. The one unalloyed positive in the film is the representation of the ghost of Christmas yet to come, which shows Scrooge shadows of a possible future, as a literal shadow. It’s a clever concept skillfully executed.