"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"
After countless years of adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, we come to 2009, wherein Robert Zemeckis (director of the hugely successful films Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future, and Forest Gump), released his own version of the classic. How could this version possibly make itself stand out in the crowd of other Christmas Carol movies? The answer is by doing the same thing he'd done for his last two films; produce it using motion capture and computer animation. The Polar Express and Beowulf are divisive films, both made with incredible creative energy but strangely lacking in soul. Is the motion capture process to blame? Is it the soulless eyes of the characters, their "uncanny valley" movements, or the distractingly hyper-real aesthetics? I still don't know where I stand personally on the topic, but I will say that many mo-cap movies have visuals that are absolutely spectacular and some visuals that miss the mark. The line between being an animated film and a live-action film is blurred considerably when watching a mo-cap film; while you are watching real actors give computer-abridged performances, the environment they occupy, their clothing, and every object in the film is computer animated. Whatever the classification for the films is, the only thing that really matters is the end product.
"What reason have you to be merry?"
So looking back at Zemeckis's $200 million dollar juggernaut, how does it hold up? It wasn't a huge hit with audiences or critics, and can ultimately be considered a flop. But there's something I really like about this adaptation, as unnecessary as its production might have been. This is a ghost story first and foremost, unafraid to be dark, creepy, and not pander to its family audience. It's quite faithful to the book, besides that part where, you know, the Ghost of Christmas Future shrinks Scrooge down and chases him throughout the city on a hell chariot. It's very interesting to be able to see with, your own eyes, where exactly a movie derails itself, and by golly, that's the fucking moment.
Remember that part in the book where Scrooge gets whacked with those icicles?
Jim Carrey and Gary Oldman play numerous parts within the film in similar vein as Tom Hanks in The Polar Express. Carrey portrays the crotchety Scrooge surprisingly well, scarcely giving way to his Jim Carey-isms in favor of a more honest approach in portraying the character. Alastair Sim, he is not, but the performance is great nonetheless (as is the creepy, stylized character design). He plays the three ghosts in the film as well, and I can't decide whether or not I like this idea. I hate everything about Past, love everything about Present, and am totally indifferent about Future (though I do like the idea of him emerging from Scrooge's shadow). Gary Oldman plays Bob Cratchit as well as Tiny Tim (the "performance" part anyway), and though his acting is so good it actually makes me cry in the third act, something went horribly wrong with his character designs. Bob Cratchit looks like a hobbit, and Tiny Tim's eyes are so wide they look like they're trying to swallow my soul. In addition, Oldman plays the ghost of Jacob Marley, in a scene that gets it so right until Marley's Mouth unhinges and he has to deliver the rest of the dialogue in gimmicky, painfully unfunny ways. It's a mood killer among too many mood killers.
Oh, could you not hear him during this HILARIOUS gag?
At least the music is really solid, with Alan Silvestri delivering one of his best modern scores, though nothing beats his 80s scores (most of which were produced for Zemeckis's own films). It perfectly captures that "Christmassy" feeling without shoving "Jingle Bells" down your throat for an hour and a half. He effectively uses familiar Christmas carols, but combines them with an originally composed score, and it's an absolute joy to listen to. It may not be as good as Silvestri's score for The Polar Express, but it comes close.
"Ghost of the future, I fear you more than any spectre I have seen."
In spite of jaw-droppingly gorgeous environments and camera movements that sweep through luscious landscapes, detailed cities, and starry skies, some of the character animation and designs bring the movie down a peg. Fezziwig (Bob Hoskins) and his hefty wife inexplicably fly around like Peter Pan and Wendy during a dance scene, Scrooge's fiance Belle (Robin Wright Penn) and his nepwhew Fred (Colin Firth) look like Barbie and Ken dolls next to the other characters, and many of the extras look like video game avatars from a Playstation 2 game. Story wise, the only major problem with the film comes in the form of the aforementioned chase scene, but thankfully the film is able to pick itself up and keep going afterward. While I usually make it a point not to see movies in 3D, this one did not disappoint. It was just months before Avatar would come along and change the 3D industry, so when I first saw this I hadn't been exposed to much digital 3D. I don't know if it was the theater I saw it in or if 3D just hadn't been ruined for me yet, but I got an absolute thrill out of seeing this in the format. If only the film had been released a year later, it probably have doubled its box office intake. There's no way the 2010 Alice in Wonderland made a literal billion dollars on its own merits.
"I'm as light as a feather! I'm as merry as a schoolboy!"
While certainly not the best ever adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Zemeckis's version is more solid than you'd think. Then it becomes awful, then it's good again, and then right at the end you realize that Scrooge and the other characters look way too creepy for you to truly love them, and you're left a bit cold. But I'll tell you what it's not; a pop-culture-laden, lazy adaptation that doesn't even try to do anything new with the material. It's biggest problem isn't that it's made in motion capture, and it. The main issue is that slapstick is often used to lighten the mood in places that it so does not fit. Yes, some of the character designs are awful, but the environments they inhabit are an incredible sight to behold. It never shies away from darkness, and Zemeckis's total freedom of movement with the camera produces some truly exhilarating results, and the actor's performances shine through, no matter how much digital makeup they have applied. This is no Disney classic, but it's an offbeat and enjoyable Christmas movie that's worth seeing at least once, even if it's just to see the Ghost of Christmas present turn into this...
Now that's some good old-fashioned nightmare fuel.