Charles Dickens' timeless tale of an old miser who must face Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet-to-Come, as they help to bring kindness to his otherwise cold heart. The Ghosts remind him of the man he used to be, the hard truth of what the world is today, and what will happen if he does not strive to be a better man. Set around Christmas, the most joyous day of the year, Scrooge realizes the sharp contrast of his own personality.
Charles Dickens’ dark 1843 novella has inspired at least 20 movies featuring a prodigious array of talent, from Alastair Sim and Albert Finney through to the Muppets and Michael Caine. So why are we being presented with yet another re-telling of the saga of Ebenezer Scrooge and assorted ghosts?
Director/producer/screenwriter Robert Zemeckis would argue that he could render this timeless story in a technologically sophisticated way that was unthinkable until a few years ago, using the 3D performance capture technique.
Well, the result, Disney’s A Christmas Carol (the Disney appendage, by the way, is an egregious insult to Dickens’ memory) may be a marvel of technology which is achievable when you spend $175 million, but it left me feeling as cold and glum as Scrooge’s wintry Victorian London, for three reasons.
Firstly, as a computerised amalgam of human and animated elements, the characters seem artificial, no matter how clever the construct. They’re caricatures, not real, living, breathing, people, so how can you empathise with them?
I had a similar reaction to Zemeckis’ 2004 opus The Polar Express, when he pioneered the performance capture technology, and even more so with his second effort in that format, the dreadful Beowulf. This digital sleight-of-hand detracts from, rather than enhances, the actors’ performances.
Secondly, I’d take issue with the omnipotent presence of Jim Carrey. Maybe if you pay Carrey $20 million (or whatever) he’ll happily take on as many personas as you throw at him. But it’s a stretch to accept him as the voices and digitally-altered forms of Scrooge from a 7-year-old, alone and friendless, through to being an old, wisened man, as well as those of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.
Comic genius he may be, in the right vehicle, but his exaggerated, faux-English accent is annoying and distracting, and his pointy nose and even more pronounced chin look absurd. It’s easier to accept Gary Oldman doing treble duty as Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit, his ailing young son Tiny Tim, and the ghost of Joseph Marley, Scrooge’s deceased business partner. Robin Wright Penn impersonates Belle, who long ago stole Scrooge’s heart, and Fan, his now deceased sister, and Colin Firth is his kindly nephew Fred.
Thirdly, I’m not sure if this version of the fable of the miserly, misanthropic man and his redemption after being visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve conveys anything new or illuminating to the current generation of filmgoers.
In a recent interview to promote the movie, Carrey said, 'I was thinking about it this morning, how this story ties into everything we're going through. Every construct we've built in American life is falling apart. Why? Because of personal greed and ambition. Capitalism without regulation can't protect us against personal greed."
True, Dickens’ novella has long been viewed as an indictment of 19th century industrial capitalism, whose privations he suffered as a child after his father was arrested for debt and imprisoned. But it’s drawing a very long bow to connect that period with the Global Financial Crisis, as Carrey would have us believe. And the actor is no slouch when it comes to earning obscene amounts of money.
To be fair, the movie offers some visually impressive sequences as the camera swoops and soars through the streets and countryside in different eras, as Scrooge revisits his childhood, observes his nephew’s Christmas party and the festivities in the Crachit household, and is pursued by a Grim Reaper-like figure.
But the overall affect may be too dark and menacing for young kids and nowhere near hip or engaging enough for teens and adults.
Zemeckis told The New York Times, 'I like to say that the beautiful thing about what I’m doing here in this form is that it frees me from the tyranny of technique, and yet I get the wonderful bonus of maintaining the magic of the performance. I get the best of both worlds."
To the contrary, I’d argue he’s a captive of the technique, and the magic is missing.