A Christmas Carol (2020)

This 2020 British adaptation offers a somewhat unique approach to A Christmas Carol. It's actually a little hard to explain, because the short version, "A Christmas Carol reimagined through modern dance," doesn't actually convey the experience. Perhaps it should, though: the movie's main flaw is it tries to do too much at once and as a result kneecaps some of its best assets.

The film starts with a Victorian family preparing a sort of miniature stage, complete with tiny paper characters. The kids are essentially cutting up newspaper and constructing a model using the illustrations and words. Once they've finished, the matriarch begins telling the story, heavily using Dickens's text. We then cut to the world of the model for the performance.

This is one of the aspects that makes me almost want to recommend the movie despite... well, we'll get to the "despite" in a moment. But the sets are breathtaking and inventive. The story plays out in a world seemingly made of paper, with furniture plainly painted on. At times, the movie shows you the action is set on a literal stage, using the backsides of flats and showing the underside of the floor. And yet it's a stage seemingly in an endless expanse, rather than a traditional theater. It's a similar approach to the musical sequences in the 2002 Chicago adaptation, but the references run deeper. Some sets reminded me of those of Georges Méliès; others seemed to reference German Expressionism. The movie pulls from silent film tradition to build a world, and it's incredible.

Similarly, there are dance sequences that are beautiful to watch. The concept here is the story and characters are expressed through movement: the dancers themselves don't actually speak. And if that sounds really neat... yeah, I think it would have been, if not for one very unfortunate choice....

While the dancers don't speak, the characters do, via voiceover. So you're listening to Scrooge and Fred argue while watching performers act out the scene silently. At times, it all feels like a badly directed cartoon, with the vocal performances not always matching the emotion of the physical ones. I assume this was a compromise of some sort in order to produce something visually and artistically interesting for adults that remained clear enough to kids to follow, but the end result is extremely uneven and frankly distracting. I'm not sure if having the dancers fully pantomime the story actually would have worked, but I'd have liked to see them try. Instead, we're left watching something that feels like a half-measure.

Let's talk about adherence to the text. Because this is being narrated, quite a bit of the original remains intact, including some details usually omitted. I was surprised to see Fezziwig's three daughters appear as separate characters from Belle. They actually did include Belle at Fezziwig's party, but didn't mention her in the narration or dialogue in order to stay close to the text.

The largest deviations I noticed were in the order of events, rather than the events themselves. They moved the timing on Scrooge's interaction with the charity collectors so it took place outside his office - my guess is they just wanted more space to choreograph their dance. They also added a sequence showing Fan dying in childbirth. This is a relatively common alteration, but this version did so while overlaying the Spirit of Christmas Past's dialogue about her, which I thought was a clever way to alter the meaning of Dickens's story without changing his words.

Other than these, the alterations were fairly minor and largely made to fit design choices. For instance, Scrooge doesn't extinguish Past's fire, because the spirit isn't exactly depicted that way. Overall, this was a pretty close adaptation.

The designs on the spirits were likewise driven by dance. Past seemed appropriately old-fashioned, dressed in flowing gossamer fabric. Her movements were regal and graceful. Present, in contrast, seemed more modern in how he moved and spoke. Christmas Yet to Come represented a very literal interpretation of the text: aside from his human hand, he was a being of shadow. I like the idea behind this Future, but they may have exceeded their limitations. The effects weren't quite able to keep up, and the last spirit looked like a morphing smudge at times. Still, I applaud the effort.

I touched on the design already, but there's quite a bit more I could go into. My favorite detail may be the use of wind-up mice to represent the creatures. On a somewhat mixed note, I should also mention the use of paper cutouts and animation used to bridge sections and occasionally act as montages. This works at times, particularly when the movie blurs the line between the cutouts and dancers with clever lighting, but at other times, it feels unnecessary and distracting, particularly when interjected in the middle of a scene.

The aspects of this movie that work are really good. It has a unique look and feel, and moments are artistic and enchanting. But the blend of dance and voiceover is tough to overlook. On top of that, several dance sequences are understated, making sections of the movie drag. I'm almost tempted to recommend you watch excerpts or maybe start the movie and jump ahead any time you get bored. The good stuff is great, but it just doesn't work as a movie.