Lara’s Solo Review of Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol

2 Dec

Well it is now officially Christmas time, and with this time comes a few yearly traditions: picking out and decorating a tree, listening to carols, watching the best genre of movies, building gingerbread fortresses, stressing about gifts, remembering “what Christmas is really about,” and, of course, a new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, be it a movie or a Very Special Episode of your favorite sitcom. The last of these traditions was carried out this year by means of animation in “Dora’s Christmas Carol,” an episode of “Dora the Explorer” in which Dora and friends help Swiper the Fox visit his past and present in attempts to get him off Santa’s naughty list. Oh yeah, and there was also a performance capture film, cleverly titled A Christmas Carol, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jim Carrey. Though I know there might be a higher demand for the aforementioned version, as there are many of you out there who are in dire need to know the Spanish word for  “humbug,” it is the latter of the two that I saw and so it is the one that I will now review.

Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol is the story of a cranky old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge—I jest. I am not going to write the basic plot of this tale for at this time of year it is told more than the story of Christ’s birth. (If you really don’t know what it is about I suggest you go here and enlighten yourself. And then maybe go out and rent a few movies. I suggest you start with The Muppet Christmas Carol). We all know and have heard different retellings of this “ghost story of Christmas,” so the question is: What does this version do differently to enhance the tale?

You may be surprised to hear, just as I was surprised to see, that this was one of the most loyal adaptations of A Christmas Carol ever to be made. A brave step on Zemeckis’ part, the dialogue in the film was taken almost directly from the original text, retaining the old English language that gave the film a more authentic feel, though I’m sure it lost most of the young audience. Also in accordance with the book, the Ghost of Christmas Past was a giant, androgynous candle, which most other variations of the story have steered away from, perhaps because the actualization of the character is creepy and off-putting. And the Ghost of Christmas Present has terrifying children hiding under his robe, which he shows to Scrooge right before dying and becoming a skeleton. Basically, every way in which the movie stays more faithful to the text than other adaptations alienates the child viewers. And I feel as though I’m beating a dead horse (not the dead horses from the film, mind you) by saying that this is yet another movie that does not seem suited for children. There is confusing language, a lot of scenes with long silences, corpses, and a man who breaks his jaw open. As I was watching and wondering if it was too scary for kids, I began to reflect that I, as a child loved creepy movies like Gremlins and The Temple of Doom, and perhaps I was underestimating the pluck of modern children. Then the only family in the theater left due to the frightened state of their kids. My suspicions were confirmed that it was another children’s-movie-not-for-children. And the only way in which the movie attempted to capture their interest was in the only scene that strayed from the book, in which Scrooge gets shrunken down to the size of a thimble, allowing for an action sequence and Jim Carrey talking in a funny little voice. It is awkwardly thrown in as an obvious effort to bring more action and comedy before the film’s end, but all it succeeded in doing was taking away from the rest of the atmosphere of loyalty to the text.

Scrooge.

Being the mostly grown-up person that I am, I really enjoyed the overall devotion to the book. The previews for the film had mislead me to believe that it would be another performance by Jim Carrey in which he turns a scary character into a over-the-top comedic caricature as he did with the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Count Olaf in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, but it was not so. The character of Scrooge is a lot subtler than many of his previous roles, as well as many of the other portrayals of the old humbugger. Being more stingy than he is cruel, Scrooge is not near as evil as he has been made in other versions, and his transformation is less dramatic, but more realistic. There is something that I really did not appreciate about his transformation, however. When looking back on his life with the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge not only changes in spirit, but in appearance. The first depiction of Ebenezer is a little boy with a button nose. The next we see him at a ball, being very kind, and still maintaining his adorable nose. But as the character becomes nastier his nose got longer and more hooked. The less he cares about the people around him, the less Aryan his nose becomes. Perhaps it wasn’t intentional, and maybe I wouldn’t have noticed it if my friend (who is Jewish) hadn’t pointed it out to me, but indeed the stingier Scrooge became about money, the Jewier his nose became.

Of course it is easier to feed into stereotypes when you can digitally alter the appearance of your characters.  As in the way of his last two films, The Polar Express and Beowulf, Zemeckis utilized performance capture, a procedure that digitally captures the movements of actors and then uses those actions to create animated characters. Zemeckis, who has received a lot of criticism for his new obsession, defended it by complaining about his past filmmaking experiences, lamenting that in any instance when an actor had an absolutely perfect take there would inevitably be some problem with the film, whether it was out of focus or an extra was breaking continuity, and the perfect moment would never be able to be recaptured. He believes the performance capture technique does just that: captures performances, and it never has to be compromised. The problem with that, however, is the performances made are not the ones that are shown on camera. Every shot goes through tons of digital steps to take the original piece to a computer animated replica, taking away a great deal of authenticity. I was surprised to hear that the actors did, in fact, interact with each other because there was a definite lack of chemistry between the characters. Perhaps the deficiency in chemistry is because the actors were uncomfortable, maybe it’s due to the fact that the method still isn’t fully developed and the characters look cross-eyed, but I believe the real reason is that the energy, which may or may not have been on set, is put through computer process after computer process, and the dynamism wanes. Any spontaneity is lost. But I don’t really wish to complain here, for I appreciate any new developments in filmmaking and the pioneers who fight to get them into the world, but there certainly are elements lost through this form.

Scrooge (Jim Carrey) and Tiny Tim (Gary Oldman)

Though the use of digital techniques has its downsides, it also has a great deal of advantages. The movie is filled with long, breathtaking shots that are only possible without the physical barriers that would exist on a real set. The cinematography (if you can call it that) takes the camera through the arm of a child on the street, under a plate of delicious food, and then soars up above to display the beautiful Victorian streets below—all in one continuous shot. I must interrupt here to admit that I did not see this movie in 3D. Apparently by waiting until after Thanksgiving, the appropriate time to begin celebrating Christmas, I sacrificed the ability to watch this movie as it was originally intended; with a third dimension. So at these many incredible moments in the film, I grunted, “I bet that would have looked awesome in 3D.” I’m sure that didn’t get old for my friends. Still, it all looked amazing. The entire thirteen-minute sequence with the Ghost of Christmas Past was all done in one continual shot, which, even in only two dimensions, was a roller-coaster that was amazing to behold.

Even though I’ve complained a lot in this review, I still really enjoyed the movie. It was an interesting new spin on the old tale. It wasn’t especially merited, but it stands true to the tradition of further developing Charles Dickens’ original work. The cinematography was beautiful and exciting, and it was interesting to see Victorian England through a digital perspective. I would recommend the visual ride to any fellow Christmas fanatics or movie geeks who delight in anything new as I do, especially if you can accompany the movie with red and blue glasses.

God bless us. Every one.

Lara

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2 Responses to “Lara’s Solo Review of Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol”

  1. Canada Chris December 2, 2009 at 5:01 pm #

    What makes a ‘kids movie’ a ‘kids movie’ ? I guess you could argue that because Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox are based on kids books that that’s their target audience. However, as you mention yourself, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol would certainly never be considered a ‘kids book.’

    So what is it then? Is it because it’s an animated film? I know in Japan the culture is much more accepting of animation geared towards adults than we are in the West. Is it because it’s Jim Carrey in a Christmas role, a la The Grinch?

    My best guess is that what makes a ‘kids movie’ is the marketing department of any given distributor. They decide how they’re going to advertise the film and what their target demographic is. But that’s sheer marketting. I mean, just look at the Mary Poppins trailer recut to appear to be a horror film:

    I guess I don’t really have purpose to this rant, it’s just an open invitation to wonder…

    • cintussupremus December 2, 2009 at 9:11 pm #

      I’m glad you brought this up, because I’ve been wondering lately just what makes a kid movie. The main reason why I mentioned these three films as kids films is because of the ways have been marketed. ESPECIALLY in this instance, when the advertising was played before every children’s movie of the year and showed some of the few lighthearted moments of the film- it’s really misleading. But I suppose it couldn’t be advertised towards an adult audience, either- because there’s not as much interest in animation among adults as there is in Japan. It’s like these movies have a hard time finding a middle ground for what will keep the interest of the young and the old. The only studio that seems capable of finding the happy medium is Pixar.

      Moral of the story: Pixar rules. And kids today are wimps.

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