A Christmas Carol: ’Twas a Spiritless Affair, Indeed

By  · Published on November 7th, 2009

Movies have supremely warped my conception of time. No longer do I judge the fragments of the year in terms of trite notions of spring, summer, fall and winter. Instead my calendar is notated with marketing strategies of major studios. For example, the beginning of the year is award season, followed by a dumping ground, followed by the blockbusters, another dumping ground, horrorween, and finally holiday season. Having just hurdled horrorween relatively unscathed, we find ourselves staring down the barrel of a number of films ready to bank on the inescapable jubilance of the next two months. For me, this is the cinematic season that garners the highest level of concern. The thing is there are very few holiday films that I watch on a regular basis that were released after 1987. Elf would be an exception to that block given that I find it to be a pitch perfect holiday film that captures the child-like wonder of the season and is destined to be a classic. But for every Elf or Love Actually we’ve gotten over the last decade, we’ve had to suffer through a dozen Christmas with the Cranks and a smattering of Jingle All the Way’s. So when I found out that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was getting yet another film adaptation, I cringed. However when I heard it was going to be an animated, 3-D spectacle directed by Robert Zemeckis, my interest was officially piqued.

I am not going to waste time describing the plot of this film because if you don’t know it by now, I have serious cause to doubt your status as a citizen of Earth; you goddamned toaster! Sufficed to say, there are elements in this particular adaptation that are more faithful to Dickens’ classic unseen in most versions. Jim Carrey steps into the role of Ebenezer Scrooge while the supporting cast is stacked with some truly fine actors: Robin Wright-Penn, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, and Gary Oldman. Oh, and Carey Elwes is also in this. I am also not going to judge the optical quality of the 3-D because I believe the theater in which I saw it did not offer the best environment for full appreciation. I just don’t think it would be an objective analysis.

Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol is a mess. I’m sorry to write those words. It’s a rehashing of something we’ve seen time and time again…for the most part. As I mentioned before, there are elements included that offer a more honest interpretation of Dickens, but while that is respectable, it also destroys the pacing and flow of the film. I applaud Zemeckis (who also adapted the story for the screen) for including the more horrific elements of what was essential a Victorian-era ghost story. But why then temper that with an over-the-top abandon of intelligence by making your inexplicably shrunken Scrooge surf an icicle down a roof? When the film is faithful, it is equal parts boring and incomprehensible. When it deviates from the book and tries to add something fresh, it is mind-numbingly ridiculous. I can understand adding a measure of whimsy in order to market this as a family film, but the horrific elements will assuredly incite tears and nightmares from younger audience members anyway. I know this to be true, because I witnessed children in the theater seek refuge on the laps and inside the jackets of their parents.

Let’s talk performances, and by extension the animation of the characters themselves. Jim Carrey gives what is easily one of his worst performances to date. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Carrey in both his goofball and more pensive material, but he struggles in this. His voice work rings of an “In Living Color” sketch featuring a bad Scrooge impression. He delivers jokes in the quieter moments with so little skill that they fall completely flat and there was a thunderous silence in the auditorium each and every time. Judging by his lack of timing, you would think he had never before delivered a joke on screen; troubling considering the actor. I reject the notion that he was shackled by the old English text because the jokes that he fails to land are divorced from the archaic dialogues and are intended to juxtapose them. On the other hand, Gary Oldman’s performance is excellent. He brings a warm, unflappable optimism to Bob Cratchet and his relationship with Tiny Tim is heart-breaking. In a film in which I had no emotional investment, Gary Oldman’s performance made me want to cry. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention the spot-on casting of Bob Hoskins as Fessiwig; that rotund little madman is about as energetic as it gets.

I will say that most of the characters look fantastic; the special effects employed are phenomenal and there are moments wherein the line between animation and using live actors gets a little blurry. But unfortunately that artistry did not trickle down to many of the background characters. There is one scene in particular in which this is most jarring. During the big dance number at the Fessiwig party, all of the ancillary characters look as if they are wearing pig masks. Their faces are all overly rounded and the features are completely washed out. It is strikingly flimsy animation. And while I won’t judge the visual quality of the 3-D, I have to say that it is among the most gimmicky 3-D this side of My Bloody Valentine. Things that would not naturally be in the foreground are thrust into our faces in a desperate grab for reaction. 3-D does not have to be a gimmick in animated films and can instead add depth and scale to the story, a la Up, so there really is no excuse for the way it’s used in A Christmas Carol.

A lot of the elements added from the original text will come off as nothing short of bizarre. The ghost of Christmas present makes some portentous warning about trusting men of the cloth and has scary child zombies under his robes. Meanwhile the ghost of Christmas past, a candle, does this weird little dance where he shimmies his head back and forth for no reason at all. I don’t know if it was supposed to be funny or what, but again the audience was dead silent afterwards. Now, I am not sure exactly how much of that is from the original work, but most of the moments you will see that will have you scratching your head are from the Dickens classic; minus Jim Carrey’s ice surfing of course. These moments not only befuddle the audience but also suck the wind out of the pacing. They are like little speed bumps that jump up whenever the movie gets rolling.

But worse than that, the inclusion of the long-lost aspects of the story into the film forces well-known, often crucial points to be glossed over. It’s kind of Newtonian in that the classic bits and the relics cannot occupy the same space. The most offensive truncation is Scrooge’s tragic love story. The plot of the film literally fades from the first time they meet to their tearful goodbye. In the actual story, when they first meet, Scrooge is a jovial, caring lad with dreams and ambitions. When they part ways, he has become consumed with money and greed causing a rift between them. Zemeckis’ version offers no A to B progression for this. Suddenly the bright-faced, happy lad is a young miser counting money and railing about how he would rather die than be poor; quite a storytelling leap if you ask me.

All in all, A Christmas Carol offers some things we haven’t seen before, but at the expense of congruity and pacing. The animation is gorgeous in some areas and unforgivably lacking in others. I think my overall biggest beef with this adaptation is that it in no way got me into the Christmas spirit. I felt nothing, apart from a few brilliant moments from Oldman, and that is an enormous fault to assign to a film based on the novel that perfectly gives voice to the power of the season. This version feels mostly old hat with a few misguided attempts to reinvigorate the story. Parents will not want to take kids to this because of the more frightening material (with the added issue of it being right in their children’s faces) and adults will take one look at the trailer and write the film off as kiddy fare.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.