A Christmas Carol (2009) [Revisited]

Strictly speaking, this probably doesn't need to be revisited. Lindsay reviewed it back in 2011, and while it's more a summary than what we do these days, it's more substantial than most of our reviews from the first couple years of the blog. Even so, I'm trying to rewatch every significant adaptation of A Christmas Carol, so I've got some thoughts.

This is, of course, the CG motion capture version directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jim Carrey as Scrooge and all three spirits. The intention was to bring Charles Dickens's story and John Leech's illustrations to life through the use of modern visual effects. Motion capture offered a way to merge performance with animation to an extent that hadn't previously been possible. It was a lofty goal.

I don't think it's controversial to say they failed miserably. There's something deeply wrong with the way the human characters (and most of the spectral ones) appear. They resemble grotesque wax figures, rather than cartoonish beings. Their movements are unnatural, like aliens wearing human skin. 

To be fair, this was still a learning phase. The concept of the uncanny valley wasn't widely understood, and there was a debate over whether negative reactions to these sorts of visuals were really due to the ways our brains are innately wired or if we simply weren't used to new animation styles yet. I think experiments like this and its precursor, The Polar Express, more or less settled that matter.

That said, if you ignore the people, there are a few impressive visuals in the film. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is wonderfully creepy, and some of the weird adventure sequences look impressive (I'll have some less complimentary things to say about those when we get to tone, but from a purely visual standpoint, the flying, falling, and chase scenes are executed well).

But notice I said, "some." The movie's setting suffers from a lack of inspiration and effort. Textures aren't as consistently varied as they should be. There are certainly objects and surfaces that look beautiful, but for every moment selling the environment, there are three or four where things look overly flat, like a video game from the same era.

Let's set this aside and move on to casting. While I find Carrey taking on the four main roles gimmicky, I have to admit he's very good in this. His various accents are believable, and he manages to largely conceal his presence. I still think this casting was a mistake on behalf of the producers, but Carrey deserves a great deal of credit for minimizing the damage casting a Canadian to play multiple roles in a story set in England in the nineteenth century.

The rest of the casting is a bit mixed. Robin Wright Penn plays Fan and Belle - she's fine as the former and rather fantastic as the latter. Actually, the scene where Belle leaves Ebenezer ranks among the best versions of that sequence I've come across, transcending the animation. More on that when we get to a breakdown of the story.

I'm not sure he's in enough to matter, but I'll admit I love the fact Cary Elwes has a handful of minor roles, solely because anytime Westley and Buttercup appear in the same movie it warms my heart.

On the other spectrum, a few casting choices are just bonkers. Gary Oldman plays Bob Cratchit, which makes as little sense as it sounds. It's not that he does a bad job; he's just not a good fit for a character primarily notable for being reserved and timid. To be fair, he also provides the voice for Marley's ghost, which is much better suited to his talents.

I'm likewise baffled by the choice to cast Bob Hoskins as Fezziwig. Again, he's not really bad so much as cast against type. Arguably, both him and Oldman's Cratchit could be viewed as an attempt to challenge assumptions about what these characters should have to sound like, but I don't really think animation - particularly this kind of animation - is the place to explore this sort of counter-intuitive casting.

Let's get to the story and how it relates to its source material. Watching this while being somewhat embedded in different versions of A Christmas Carol, I was a bit taken aback by the realization this is probably the closest adaptation I've come across yet. Well, sort of. There's a huge caveat to that, but first let's talk about the opening.

As is the case with several older adaptations I've come across, this starts with a copy of the book, A Christmas Carol, being opened. It then transforms a sketch of Marley's corpse into a 3D image. This scene is set seven years before the main part of the story and shows Scrooge viewing Marley's corpse and signing the certificate of death. This both is and is not in the book - we're told it happened, but not shown it. The movie goes out of its way to avoid adding details or dialogue, other than a couple brief lines from Scrooge. There's some physical comedy around Scrooge's stinginess, but very few words actually spoken.

This seems to be the running philosophy through the film. Virtually every line spoken is pulled from the book, usually with only minor alteration. Similarly, I didn't notice a single sequence missing. A few interactions were streamlined or modernized slightly, but as far as I can tell, nothing from the book was removed, and nothing was added...

Except for... you know... all the batshit crazy stuff. The Ghost of Christmas Past's extinguisher transforms into a rocket launching Scrooge into the atmosphere. Sprits fly him around or turn his house into a sort of levitating viewer with a clear floor. The Ghost of Christmas Present and Scrooge find themselves in a clockwork hellscape as Present turns to dust. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come rides on a shadowy spectral hearse as he chases Scrooge and uses magic to shrink Ebenezer to a few inches tall.

That's what I recall off the top of my head. And, taken out of context, a lot of this stuff is kind of neat. The spectral hearse in particular would make for a great short horror film, if you watched it on its own. But in context, it's just baffling. I mentioned the uniquely beautiful sequence between Scrooge and Belle earlier. I stand by it as a great moment, but seconds later Scrooge is flying in front of the moon after being launched by a candle extinguisher dissolving into purple glitter. To say it spoils the tone is an understatement: it's utterly ridiculous. I can only assume these were executive mandates, as they seem to go against the philosophy driving the rest of the movie. Aside from these, this is far more precise than any of the other adaptations I've seen.

Precise doesn't automatically mean good, mind you. I'm not placing any value judgment on adherence to the source material beyond what works and what doesn't. I will say, to this movie's credit, it demonstrates that the book can be handled within the confines of a movie's duration. Also, I think the minor adjustments to dialogue were very well done here.

But all of that's academic. The animation alone is bad enough to guarantee the movie can't recover. Add on the stunt casting and the tone-breaking attempts to ramp up the excitement, and you're left with an absolute fiasco. I believe there was real love and hard work put into this, and I think a close inspection reveals some good ideas that are lost in all the noise. But taken as a whole, I think this is one of the worse big screen adaptations of A Christmas Carol out there. Maybe even the absolute worst.

Whether you think that's fair or not, it's worth noting this was the last big screen adaptation to date. I'm sure we haven't seen the last of Ebenezer, but between the lackluster box office performance, the relatively poor reputation, and the steep cost of production, this has at least temporarily ended the stream of large studio adaptations.

Before I wrap this up, I want to say a few things about tone. By a fairly small margin, I'd classify this as a comedy, though it comes close to splitting the difference between that and horror. There are some big, scary moments in this movie, particularly considering it got a PG rating. But it goes out of its way to mitigate these with zany expressions, wacky sound cues, and comedic moments. I think these are many attempts to keep this kid-friendly, and the scales start tipping closer to horror in the future, but overall I think comedy's the bucket this lands in.