Friday, November 6, 2009

A Christmas Carol: What the Dickens?

A Christmas Carol (2009) • View trailer for A Christmas Carol
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG, despite considerable dramatic intensity and quite scary scenes
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.6.09
Buy DVD: A Christmas Carol• Buy Blu-Ray: Disney's A Christmas Carol (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

Despite the frequently awkward blend of Charles Dickens, Jim Carrey and 21st century computer graphics, director/scripter Robert Zemeckis gets an impressive number of things just right: enough that, at first, we have reason to be optimistic about this rather unusual adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

Sadly, Zemeckis also gets a lot of things disastrously, jaw-droppingly wrong.
Ebenezer Scrooge (sorta-kinda Jim Carrey, right) reluctantly allows the Ghost
of Christmas Present (Carrey again) to begin a journey through London -- a
trip that will reveal painful details about Scrooge's clerk, Bob Cratchit -- in
director Robert Zemeckis' ill-advised CGI adaptation of Charles Dickens'
classic holiday tale.

By the time the Ghost of Christmas Future shows up, you'll wonder if Zemeckis is designing a Disneyland theme park ride, rather than honoring the legacy of the most famous holiday story in recent history.

Zemeckis clearly is fixated by this hybrid animation process  which builds its characters, like the old-fashioned rotoscoping technique, by re-imaging actual people  that he first used in his adaptation of The Polar Express (2004) and then in Beowulf (2007). Although the technology has improved with each film, it remains distracting on many levels.

The core argument is the most basic: If one hires the likes of a Jim Carrey, why not simply use him?

Granted, animation allows a filmmaker the ability to put his "cast" through trials and tribulations that no flesh-and-blood actor ever could attempt, let alone survive. Zemeckis takes advantage of this many, many times during A Christmas Carol, and the simple touches often are the best: a sneer that not even Carrey's malleable features could produce, a disturbingly bony finger beckoning from a distance.

And Scrooge's encounter with the seven-years-dead Marley, late one dark night, is a masterpiece of editing, pacing and dialogue lifted faithfully from Dickens' novella. Unsettling camera angles blend with a truly frightening phantasm to produce an encounter that no man could soon forget. Nor do we.

But then, almost as if drunk with a puppeteer's power, Zemeckis overplays these techniques. Whizzing through the streets of London, passing in and around obstacles inserted to juice up the 3-D "in our face" effects, is breathtaking and exciting. The first time. Even the second time. But Zemeckis repeats this gag over and over and over again, until it becomes both tiresome and quite likely to induce nausea in vertigo-sensitive viewers.

It's an old lesson, and one worth remembering: The mere fact that one possesses the ability to design a dramatic sequence a certain way, doesn't mean that one should over-indulge and yield to it at every opportunity.

Then, too, there's the issue of the story's primary characters, and their deliberate resemblance to the actors who model them. It's not difficult to see Carrey in Scrooge, and Bob Hoskins makes a particularly delightful Fezziwig. Gary Oldman's features, as well, are discernible in his 'performance' as Bob Cratchit.

But Colin Firth is poorly served as Scrooge's nephew Fred, and Robin Wright Penn is nowhere to be seen as Belle, the young woman Scrooge lets slip away, in young adulthood, as he succumbs to overpowering avarice.

The CGI team also rather glaringly put all its effort into the characters granted primary focus in any given scene. Supplementary individuals - the employees at Fezziwig's ball, the guests at Fred's Christmas party - don't get nearly the same attention, and they have the lesser animated "substance" of extras in a Shrek installment.

But let's get back to Carrey, whose presence becomes irritatingly constant. Indeed, he's credited eight (!) times in the cast, playing everything from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future to Scrooge at five points in life. Really, Jim, was it necessary to get separate credits for "Scrooge as Young Boy," "Scrooge at Teenage Boy" and "Scrooge as Young Man"?

Ultimately, as well, Carrey's ubiquitousness completely destroys this story's all-important tone.

It starts subtly, when the flame-like head of the Ghost of Christmas Past  an intriguing artistic choice, and one I was willing to roll with, given this ghost's task of illuminating long-gone events  flickers and then noisily pops and sputters during an otherwise solemn moment. This sound effect clearly is inserted for laughs, and the audience obligingly giggles.

Which minimizes and eventually sabotages the all-essential mood of what should be an earnest scene.

Zemeckis allows Carrey to do this again and again; clearly, it's a tone the director desires. This becomes a pattern: Every time the power of Dickens' original prose threatens to involve us at the intended emotional level, one of Carrey's many animated alter-egos cracks wise, mugs inappropriately or in general behaves as if this were a sequel to The Mask.

It could be argued, I suppose, that such comic relief is welcome, given the ferocity of this film's scarier moments. Scrooge's encounter with Marley's ghost is intense enough, but that's only for starters; poor Ebenezer repeatedly goes through the wringer, and takes us with him, during frightening encounters with ever more ghastly specters.

This film is rated PG with reason: Parents of young children are strongly advised to watch this picture before exposing it to small fry. More than a few youngsters burst into tears and had to be removed during Monday's preview screening.

And the intensity of these scenes is a different sort of problem: By the time we finally meet the Ghost of Christmas Future, who should be the scariest of all, Zemeckis finds it impossible to top what has come before.

Instead, he abandons Dickens entirely by forcing Scrooge to flee through London's streets, closely followed by a carriage drawn by two satanic horses whipped into a frenzy by the Ghost of Christmas Future. And just as we're tiring of this interminable chase, Zemeckis ups the ante by shrinking Scrooge to mouse size, and continuing the pursuit for another several minutes ... again, mostly to throw 3-D obstacles into our faces.

A rodent-size Scrooge.


That's where I checked out.

The biggest issue, though, is much deeper.

A Christmas Carol derives its power from the evolving humanity of a man who begins with no redeeming virtues; we respond to the story by watching Scrooge find, initially resist and then ultimately succumb to his finer instincts. The triumphant impact of the final scenes derives from having watching an actor  whether Alastair Sim, George C. Scott or Patrick Stewart  persuasively display this complicated progression of emotion.

Zemeckis' much-ballyhooed CGI technique simply cannot deliver that level of performance sensitivity ... and so his adaptation of A Christmas Carol ultimately fails. Watching Tiny Tim say "God bless us, ev'ry one!" in the final scene is cute, not poignant; Scrooge's humbled request for forgiveness is amusing, not stirring.

We never engage with these characters.

Stripped of its fancy 21st century technology, Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol is little more than a fancy remake of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol: entertaining as a novelty, to be sure, but no substitute for Dickens' prose, or the full-blown fury  and eventual redemption  of Scrooge as performed by an actor at the top of his game.

Please, Bob, return to working with real-world actors; too many years have passed since you dazzled us with the likes of Forrest Gump and Cast Away.

No comments:

Post a Comment