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Review: Disney’s A Christmas Carol

By  · Published on November 6th, 2009

My feelings towards Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol have always been of two minds. I love the tale from the wit and greed-filled banter to the ghostly apparitions to the grand redemption at the end. The same goes for the multiple film and TV versions of the story. I’m partial to the George C. Scott version from the eighties, but Scrooged and The Muppet Christmas Carol tie for a close second. The problem I have with the story though is that very same magnificent redemption I mentioned as loving not three sentences ago. I’ve just never been convinced that Scrooge honestly changes for any reason other than selfish self-preservation. Sure he seems concerned about Tiny Tim’s imminent demise, but it’s his own untended gravestone that really pushes him towards turning over a new leaf isn’t it? Now thanks to Robert Zemeckis’ continuing desire to avoid telling original stories in favor of digitally manipulated versions of older ones, yet another adaptation of Dickens’ tale is hitting the screen… but can 3D animation make it any more convincing?

I shouldn’t have to summarize the story of A Christmas Carol for you heathens, but in the interest of proper film review format I will anyway. Ebenezer Scrooge is a cranky, miserly, and rudely practical old man living and working in Victorian-era London. His view on the Christmas holiday can be summed up in his sentiment that those who celebrate the day with merry and cheer should be boiled in their own pudding and “buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” He’s visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley, who was equally as cheap and unlikable in life as Scrooge and who in death must drag around the chains he forged while still alive. Marley warns Scrooge of three more spirits coming to haunt him and advises the old man to heed their warnings lest he end up with an eternal fate like Marley’s.

Story-wise there’s very little to review or criticize here really. Dickens’ tale is a classic for a reason, and you’d have to go out of your way to really screw it up (cough, The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, cough). Zemeckis wisely keeps his rendition very close to previous versions with their very precise structure of character introduction, ghostly visitations, and then celebratory redemption. The scenes you recall from earlier versions are pretty much all recreated here in beautifully done animation. The characters look great, but it’s the details of the world around them that truly astound. From the bricks and cobblestones to the fabrics in clothes and curtains to the visible exhalations in the cold London air, Zemeckis and friends have created a fairly impressive world.

I’m no fan of Zemeckis’ previous 3D motion-captured films, The Polar Express and Beowulf, but A Christmas Carol has somewhat redeemed at least one aspect of the format for me. It helps that the original story itself is almost perfect (motivational veracity of Scrooge’s life change aside), but Zemeckis has improved the visual style of his ‘actors.’ Both Polar Express and Beowulf overlayed their herky-jerky mo-cap with plasticine characters that exuded more style than humanity. Christmas Carol keeps the stylized visuals but has now managed to imbue some of the characters’ faces with real warmth. They’re obviously still not going for photo-realism, but the quality of these CGI creations no longer keeps you at arm’s length emotionally.

But it’s not all good news… The major misstep Zemeckis makes here in regard to the 3D animated format is his need to up the “ride factor” of the movie. Scrooge gets pulled through the sky above London a few times, and while it looks absolutely briliant and delightful each time it is done strictly for the effect. Those flights of fancy are obvious enough, but Zemeckis crosses the imaginary line during Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Scrooge is shrunken to mouse-size and chased through the streets by Death’s horse-drawn carriage. Why? The phantom reaches for Scrooge several times, just missing him at the last second, and it makes no sense. The whole set piece exists solely for cheap thrills and laughs. Pratfalls, sewer runs, rat shenanigans… it all stands apart from the rest of the story and it makes you imagine the Disney execs with a checklist featuring a minimum number of action scenes required.

It’s obviously difficult to gauge the acting on display in an animated film, even a mo-cap one, but it’s easy enough to praise Carrey’s work here in his multiple roles. He brings Scrooge to life, but he also inhabits the three Christmas ghosts that haunt him. While the final spectre is mute and without facial detail, the others (as well as Scrooge) are all distinctly different creations. Carrey does such a fine job with the cantankerous and fearful Scrooge that I almost wish he would have played the character in a live action film instead. His best work in the film however is with the first two ghosts. Carrey’s Christmas Past is perhaps the creepiest non-horror film ghost I’ve seen since Ghost Dad. His face is recreated as a candle flame, constantly smiling, potentially unstable, and he speaks with a pitched Irish whisper. It’s more than a little unsettling at times. His Christmas Present thunders with a strong Scottish voice full of cheer, joy, and the occasional bits of fierce anger. All are Carrey’s creations, but they still each manage to be unique.

Carrey’s multiple roles impress and make thematic sense as Scrooge is after all being haunted by his own life, but the others who tackle multiple characters aren’t always as successful or logical. Gary Oldman plays Bob Cratchit with a mix of innocence, joy, and devastation, and it all translates well to the screen. He also portrays the ghost of Marley and the (unrecognizable) voice of Tiny Tim, but since there’s no narrative reasoning behind this it seems more of a ploy than anything else. His characters were different enough that it was more of an oddity than a problem, but the same can’t be said for Bob Hoskins. He plays Scrooge’s long-dead first employer, Fezziwig, but then appears later in the film as the husband of Scrooge’s cleaning woman. It caused a brief bit of confusion while I tried to figure out why Fezziwig looked like a hobo (and why he was still alive at all). Colin Firth, Robin Wright Penn, and Cary Elwes round out the recognizable cast. (Especially Elwes who’s very round indeed.)

Will Disney’s A Christmas Carol worm it’s way into your hearts and homes and become as much of a holiday staple as rum balls and spotted dick are now? Possibly, but maybe not. It’s fun, occasionally frightening, and often beautiful, while at the same time staying true to Dickens’ classic tale, but it also never needed a 3D update. Kids will be the film’s biggest fans thanks to the multiple whiz-bang-wow scenes, and while adults won’t be bored they also won’t find any more heart or Christmas cheer than we’ve already seen from Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, or even Bill Murray. Because as good as it looks it’s still artificial when compared to real flesh and blood actors portraying real joy and tear-filled emotions. Which should answer the question as to whether or not this new Scrooge’s redemption is any more believable…

The Upside: 3D effects are more about texture and depth than obvious thrusts towards the audience; ghosts are sufficiently spooky; animation is sharp, detailed, and stylized; has a few laughs

The Downside: segment where Scrooge shrinks seems designed purely to add more “ride” scenes and physical comedy; dual use of an obvious Bob Hoskins caused minor confusion

On the Side: A species of snail native to Fiji was named Ba humbugi upon it’s discovery in 1976.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.