Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Christmas Carol

New version of the classic has bells, whistles, but lacks heart

Posted By on Wed, Nov 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM

At this point, Dickens' Christmas classic is so much a part of our culture vernacular — Hell, "Scrooge" has become a common noun — it's difficult to imagine what, if anything, can be done to improve upon past productions of the tale. The story has been cycling through film, TV movies, sitcoms, local theaters and novels for much of the last hundred years. And, along the way, it's become the equivalent of holiday wallpaper. Richard Donner and Bill Murray came closest to effectively revitalizing the tale with 1988's Scrooged, restaging it as a modern comedy. 

But wait! A Christmas Carol hasn't been done in 3-D computer animation. With Jim Carrey, no less! And thus we have director Robert Zemekis (Polar Express, Beowolf) mustering all the pixels and motion-capture technology he can find to breathe life into a classic tale that, frankly, didn't need to be retold. The result? Pretty much what you'd expect: a tricked-out Cliffs Notes approach that revels in its CGI bells and whistles but forgets to give its story a beating heart. 

Zemekis' tone is darker and eerier than past versions, and there is the now-requisite roller-coaster chase scene that so many big special-effects movies rely on, but for all the advances in digital image technology, motion capture still has a deadpan weightlessness that undermines the visual experience. The animation, created by live actors wearing computer sensors, allows for some cool shots and amazing character work — the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present are particularly arresting — but they have no sense of gravity or substance. Worse, the facial expressions are rooted in the real expressions of the characters filtered through pixels, giving everybody a creepy wax-museum look. No one in this 2.0 version of A Christmas Carol moves you like the exaggerated, cartoony characters in, say, Pixar's Up.

While the idea of having Carrey play both Scrooge and the three ghosts that visit him has thematic appeal, the film botches the one thing any version of A Christmas Carol must absolutely get right: Scrooge's emotional transformation. Of all the versions I've seen — and I've seen quite a few — the two that have struck me as the most authentically moving are Alistair Sims in the austere 1951 British version and, yes, Bill Murray in Scrooged. Both are heartfelt and believable in a way that leaves a lump in your throat. Though Carrey does a good job for most of the film's running time, Zemekis' threadbare personal narrative (Tiny Tim is more a footnote than a character) and impatience to wrap the movie up shortchange the entire point of Dickens' story: to show that even the worst of people can change for the better. It's a lesson the director should have taken to heart.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to


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