Friday, November 13, 2009

REVIEW: DIsney's A Christmas Carol

Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol (which is what the movie should really be titled) is dazzling, wondrous, moving and imaginative. It boasts some of the most astounding visuals I've seen  in a movie theater all year. It's everything an adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic should be.

The thing is, that's only during the Ghost of Christmas Present sequence. I wish the rest of the movie were as good as its mid-section. Alas, the other parts range from merely decent to truly regrettable.

As much as I wish director Zemeckis would return to making live-action movies and drop his motion-capture obsession, his first movie in the process, The Polar Express, remains my favorite holiday movie experience of the decade (as long as it was in IMAX 3D). So even though the motion capture technology has improved since Polar Express, why doesn't A Christmas Carol work as well?

The answer can be summed up in one word: precedent.

There was no other movie adaptation with which to compare The Polar Express, so it stood on its own as a visual treat. I didn't even mind the so-called "dead-eye" effect. The detail of the animation and the fluidity of the camera movement were wonders to behold.

On the other hand, there have been countless adaptations of A Christmas Carol. (Click here for a fun, comprehensive recap.) Zemeckis has to work harder here because he has to bring something new to very familiar images. Sometimes he succeeds. Other times he tries too hard and falters.

The opening section and the Ghost of Christmas Past sections are fine, if indistinct - but that didn't trouble me too much as I watched it. Aside from a few impressive tracking shots, Zemeckis keeps visual flourishes to a minimum, because he's ramping up to increase the visual fireworks later.

This pays off handsomely in the Ghost of Christmas Present scene, which has ample invention and imagination. The room occupied by the ghost and Scrooge flies over London, but we never see the outside of the room  - we only see the inside and through the floor, as if Scrooge and the ghost were in a giant flight simulator. It's a stunning effect, similar to some of the visuals of  Jodie Foster's interstellar journey in Zemeckis' underrated Contact.  Even better, the emotions match the visuals, as Scrooge genuinely feels for the plight of Tiny Tim.

Then the Ghost of Christmas Future arrives, and it's all downhill from there. Zemeckis goes into overdrive to give the movie a rock-em, sock-em climax, but the movie trips over itself.  One scene in particular features Scrooge getting clobbered by icicles, which is jarringly out of place in this story - it feels more like Chuck Jones than Charles Dickens. Even worse, Scrooge shrinks in this scene and has a squeaky voice, which completely undermines the foreboding tone this part of the story needs.

Even so, the movie as a whole still stands up. Despite the transgressions of the Ghost of Christmas Future scene, Zemeckis, who adapted the story, is very faithful to Dickens' text - and Jim Carrey keeps his excesses to a minimum, making a fine Scrooge. Although I can't agree with Roger Ebert's 4-star appraisal of the film, he is correct when he says Zemeckis is the best director of 3D visuals. If you see the movie, at least see it in 3D if not the IMAX 3D version, or you're missing half the fun.

But is this the Christmas classic it so clearly wants to be? Except for the Ghost of Christmas Present sequence, no. It's good fun, but the best version of the past 20 years is still A Muppet Christmas Carol, which featured Michael Caine as the best Scrooge since Alistair Sim. That version proves that only a little razzmatazz goes a long way.

Note: Some readers have asked me how their kids might take this movie, as in, would they be scared? Please note it IS rated PG for "scary sequences and images." Some scenes are fairly intense, especially in the Ghost of Christmas Future scene. If your child is at all nightmare-prone, think twice on this one.


1 comment:

Scott Copeland said...

I finally saw this today and I am in awe. Of how good the Muppets version was. Unfortunately, the Zemeckis version shows how easily the Muppets version could have gone wrong. Ultimately, the film collapses in the ghost of Christmas yet to come sequence, where Zemeckis forgets Scrooge is supposed to learn the error of his ways. Instead, he just beats the crap out of Scrooge, so his big speech at his gravestone sounds not of a man who sees the light but only a guy scared that the ghost will beat him up some more. Therefore, the emotion of the ending is missing, and the reason for the film is missing. So I cannot recommend the film, despite some of the visuals. Watch the Muppets instead.