When the weather starts getting cold and Thanksgiving is in the rear view mirror, I start planning for Christmas films. Don’t get me wrong, before then I do my shopping and break out the music, but the movies don’t start until Black Friday. This year, I returned home from Thanksgiving and popped in Disney’s big holiday film of last year, A Christmas Carol.
To answer the first question most people ask when they find out about this movie, I’m not entirely sure why there needed to be another version of the classic Dickens story. To my mind, the Muppet version is the perfect one, but that’s a story for another time. In this instance, it’s Hollywood hit maker Robert Zemeckis (Back To The Future, Forrest Gump) and star Jim Carrey that try their hand at a story that’s been adapted dozens of times before.
Using motion capture, in the same way he did on The Polar Express and Beowulf, Zemeckis takes Carrey’s acting as Ebenezer Scrooge and builds a Victorian world around him to fill out the parts. You can debate how the “animation” of motion capture works, whether taking a human’s motions and translating them into an animated figure is true animation or not, but the imagery in this film is not debatable. It’s stunning, from the detail of the cobblestone streets to the lines on Scrooge’s face.
In the end, though, does the film succeed? That depends on your definition of success. As an adaptation of the Dickens story, A Christmas Carol is extremely successful. The dialogue will be familiar to anyone who’s read the story or seen a faithful adaption in the past. It’s mostly lifted straight from the book. As I said, the imagery is stunning.
However, it just doesn’t have the heart or the humor and fun you want from a Christmas movie. No doubt that this is a dark story as Dickens originally told it, and this film tries to be faithful to that. But there is definitely a way to pull off this story without making it so grim and gritty.
The color palette of the film, the backgrounds, the voice work of Carrey – all of them bring a foreboding and dark tone to the proceedings. Even when Scrooge has his transformation into a Christmas lover, the colors don’t change very much. It’s a difficult film to watch with that sort of darkness. Not only that, but this is scary stuff. Zemeckis took the ghost story part of the story seriously, and made Jacob Marley and the three ghosts particularly scary. Young children will not be able to watch this film.
With that sort of handicap, it would take a strong set of acting and animating to overcome the darkness and bring life to the story. For the most part, that’s what happens. Carrey as Scrooge is amazing. His voice work is dark and grim, as mentioned, but it fits the character. Carrey also turns in virtuoso performances as each of the three ghosts of Christmas, with the most bewildering one as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
The other actors in the piece are world class as well. Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn and Cary Elwes all perform admirably. The issue I have as a Disney stockholder and someone who appreciates good film is that these are high priced actors who are wasted in these roles. The motion capture process, while improving, doesn’t capture the subtleties of their performances, with the exception of Carrey. So why then spend all that money on actors? For voice work? I just don’t see it.
While A Christmas Carol is true to form to the original Dickens, it still comes off as a departure from what we are used to when watching this story. Everyone wants to watch a Christmas film and feel good about themselves, but coming away from this, frankly, I felt disturbed. That’s not to say it isn’t a good film, but it doesn’t transcend to greatness.
Contributed by: Ryan K. (NDD #137). Ryan is our resident film expert and creator of The Disney Film Project.