Program Notes: A Christmas Carol (2009)
A Christmas Carol can take just about anything you throw at it.
Hammy acting. Sticky avalanches of Merrie Olde England nostalgia. Special effects overload.
As long as filmmakers keep in mind that Ebenezer Scrooge’s story is about the transformation of a human heart, Charles Dickens’ masterwork takes care of itself.
There are a few moments in the computer-animated Disney’s A Christmas Carol when director Robert Zemeckis seems bent on re-imagining the yarn as a theme park thrill ride.
But despite these lapses into unnecessary and unwelcome audience pandering, this Carol delivers.
And Jim Carrey gets most of the credit.
His Ebenezer Scrooge may be the most fully formed and satisfying character he’s ever played – a scheming, avaricious, angry yet cowardly coot who, through a series of ghostly visits, is propelled toward brutal self-recognition and emerges a changed man.
Although this is an animated feature, Carrey acted out the role, wearing a body-hugging suit covered with sensors so that his every movement and grimace could be captured and reproduced on screen. And make no mistake, this is a Jim Carrey performance.
Although the animators have had a field day designing Scrooge – beaky nose and jutting chin, scraggly hair, skeletal hands and spiderish body – one is always cognizant of Carrey beneath that coating of bytes. This great slapstick comedian delivers a superb physical performance, imbuing Scrooge with his own sinister/amusing way of moving. Wonderful stuff.
His vocal performance is no less nuanced and effective.
In adapting the story Zemeckis was smart enough to let Dickens do the talking. Most of the lines come directly from the printed page, and a few invented scenes are presented with little or no dialogue – like the death of Scrooge’s partner, Jacob Marley, which opens the film. That’s one of this version’s great strengths ... it would rather show us than tell us.
With Polar Express and Beowulf Zemeckis explored computer animation’s ability to create an otherworldly environment, to imitate illumination by candlelight or bonfires, to offer a precise contrast between light and shadow. The lessons learned are on full display here. Whether the end is to stir us with beauty or terrorize us with malevolent darkness (maybe too much darkness for very young viewers), this Carol offers a sumptuous visual palette.
In previous animated efforts Zemeckis has taken some heat for the "dead-eyed" look of his human figures. Here, too, A Christmas Carol shows he’s learned a thing or two (though perhaps not quite enough).
The most successful characters are the most exaggerated, cartoonish ones – Scrooge, say, or the balloonish Fezziwigs. Particularly excellent is the Ghost of Christmas Past (voiced by Carrey), a sort of night-gowned child resembling a human candle, its head surrounded by flame.
When the animators attempt a form of photo realism – nephew Fred (Colin Firth) or Scrooge’s lost love Belle (Robin Wright Penn), the Cratchits or the bearded, bellowing Ghost of Christmas Present (Carrey again) – the effect is off-putting and unconvincing.
Zemeckis makes one unforgivable mistake here when, at the most dramatic and crucial moment, he goes all Hollywood on us.
Scrooge is being shown his future by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (presented as a silent hooded shadow, a nice nod to the Night on Bald Mountainsequence in Disney’s Fantasia). He realizes the error of his ways. He sees the death of Tiny Tim and stands over his own corpse. His housekeeper makes off with his possessions – even the shirt he was to be buried in.
Dickens’ message is really kicking in and then ... and then ... Zemeckis ruins the mood by giving us a ridiculous five-minute chase through the nighttime streets. Scrooge is pursued by a hearse pulled by a team of red-eyed, snorting black horses. Inexplicably he shrinks to thumb size, takes a ride on a slippery icicle and begins screaming like Alvin and the Chipmunks in a helium-shrill voice.
What the heck, people. You don’t have Hamlet deliver his soliloquy from a roller coaster.
Clearly, these moments were designed to take advantage of 3-D technology with which the movie was shown in many theaters. Of course the screening at the Central Library will be in 2-D ...
Happily, Disney’s A Christmas Carol recovers even from that huge misstep, eventually sending us on our way with a laugh and a big lump in the throat.
In the end you don’t have to analyze it ... that tear in your eye tells you it’s working.
Other films in the series “A Very Dickens Christmas”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- December 1: A Christmas Carol (1951) Not Rated
- December 8: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) Rated G
- December 15: A Christmas Carol (2009) Rated PG
- December 22: Scrooged (1988) Rated PG-13
- December 29: Scrooge (1970) Rated G
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.