According to Wikipedia, this is at least the twentieth film based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (and that’s not including its lengthy list of television adaptations). An IMDb search for “A Christmas Carol” comes back with 38 results. So I think it’s safe to say that we all know the story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and of how one Christmas Eve he was haunted by three ghosts who forever changed his life. It’s a literally timeless story; as I sat back watching Robert Zemeckis’ new 3D motion-capture version, I realized that underneath all of the state-of-the-art CG effects, the appeal of Dickens’ tale remains enormous. I can’t ever imagine a time when it won’t prove popular or relevant.
By now, dwelling on the specifics of the story is unnecessary, and besides that, Zemeckis’ screenplay is lovingly faithful (and when it’s not, you can tell). What makes the film work is that Zemeckis approaches the material with gusto and inventiveness. This is his third motion-capture film, after 2004’s The Polar Express and 2007’s Beowulf. Say what you will about either of them, but they were both exhilarating experiences, even if Beowulf was at times barely coherent. A Christmas Carol represents another technological step forward, as the characters’ eyes now look fully alive, and the scope of the motion-capture world is more impressive than it's ever been.
Since he doesn’t take many liberties with Dickens’ text, Zemeckis has a field day conjuring its visuals. The film presents the hustle and bustle of London circa 1843 in all of its glory, flying through the city and past its colorful inhabitants like no movie has before. There’s a level of detail and fluidity in the small movements of street urchins and salesmen that is astonishing. In The Polar Express and Beowulf, you could mostly tell who the actors were, but here the character designs cleverly disguise who’s playing who. You can see Jim Carrey in Scrooge and all three ghosts, but each one is markedly different. If Colin Firth as Scrooge’s nephew Fred and Bob Hoskins as Mr. Fezziwig and Old Joe are fairly obvious, Gary Oldman is hardly recognizable in any of his three roles (I’ll leave it to you to figure out who he is).
Carrey plays Scrooge and the ghosts with wit and heart, showing for the first time since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind just how talented he can be. Scrooge looks as old as you’ve ever seen him, bent and stooped and spindly; when he shouts “Bah! Humbug!” in the face of Christmas, you look at his form and believe he’s exactly the kind of man who would say something like that. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a wispy, precocious flame; the Ghost of Christmas Present is a hearty yet stern Scotsman, impossibly large; and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is the dark, foreboding figure he's always been. There’s one sequence with the Ghost of Christmas Present that is as surreal and chilling as anything you’ll see all year, with giant looming clocks ticking away at an ominous pace. This version of A Christmas Carol is not afraid to scare the bejesus out of you (or at least your kids).
Overall, this is a delightful, imaginative film, though I do have two misgivings. Like I’ve already said, this is a largely faithful take on the story, but it does stray at times. Near the end, as Scrooge runs from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, there’s an entirely pointless chase sequence that is entertaining but nonetheless distracting… not to mention the fact that Scrooge is shrunken at this point, squeaky Chipmunk voice and all. It’s the one egregious misstep Zemeckis makes, and it really does shatter the mood. Luckily, it’s easily repaired.
My other misgiving is with the actual 3D experience itself. Not everyone has the option of seeing it in 3D, of course, but if you do, I’m not sure it’s worth the extra dollars. This is the first film I’ve seen in 3D, and since I already have glasses, putting the 3D glasses on over them took some getting used to and threatened to give me a headache. That’s no fault of the film’s, and to be sure, the 3D effects are all very well-employed and I guess it’s as good as one could expect. I’m just not sure there’s much of a point to it.
Zemeckis has always been at the forefront of whiz-bang movie magic, from Back to the Future to Forrest Gump. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, he mixed live-action and animation in a way that was both groundbreaking and giddy. Now it feels like instead of being content with merely teaming Bob Hoskins with a cartoon rabbit, he wants to assimilate the audience itself into his movies, enveloping us in his vision to create the best roller coaster ride in the world. As far as I can tell, he’s not quite there yet. For one, the 3D glasses, which’ll make you look like Buddy Holly on a day at the beach, serve to considerably darken the picture. For another, perhaps more importantly, there are too few instances of the 3D being used in a way that actually enhances the action. It’s fun, but the 3D version doesn’t offer anything I wouldn’t have gotten from the 2D version. It feels more like a technique to be studied rather than a trick to be enjoyed.
But far be it for me to be bah humbugging a movie this entertaining and emotionally satisfying. It’s a thoroughly charming, touching, and spooky fable, exactly as A Christmas Carol should be.