Movie Review: Disney's A Christmas Carol
By Matthew Huntley
November 16, 2009
Did we really need another adaptation of A Christmas Carol? According to IMDb, this is about the 30th time this story has been filmed. Granted, this is the first-ever performance capture version, but if the format and technology were director Robert Zemeckis' only motives for wanting to make a movie, why not dedicate the budget and talent to a more original story?
Not that I minded watching Charles Dickens' classic tale again, especially at this time of year. But after so many renditions, it didn't have as great an impact on me (not like Mickey's Christmas Carol or The Muppet Christmas Carol did). This one is darker and creepier in parts, which I liked, and Zemeckis, directing his third feature using performance capture animation, does his best to make it stand out among the others, so there's enough to recommend here.
Jim Carrey plays the role of Ebenezer Scrooge (among several other characters), the old miser who's allowed financial gain to replace his love for other human beings. The other principals include Gary Oldman, Bob Hoskins, Colin Firth and Robin Wright Penn, all of whom fulfill multiple duties on screen; though some of the animation effects are so thick it's hard to tell it's them. For a character like Scrooge, the animation serves a purpose because it exaggerates his facial features and body movement, and it works especially well for the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who are meant to have sensational qualities about them.
With that said, I'm not convinced feature length movies benefit from performance capture...at least not yet. Sure, it's often beautiful to look at, but it seems one of the filmmakers' primary agendas is to make things look as realistic as possible. If that's the case, why not just shoot live action? What's the point of animating it?
Even after The Polar Express, Monster House and Beowulf, I don't believe animating humans gives them greater personality that couldn't also be achieved through practical makeup effects, which is more convincing and tangible. Yes, the animation gives the filmmakers the freedom to do a lot, like place its characters in unbelievable situations, but there's still something off-putting about the look of the human characters, especially their eyes, which don't quite sync up with the rest of their body. There's always a wandering effect to them that I find distracting. Rather than inducing me with a haunting, spectacular feeling, I'm taken out of the movie (in A Christmas Carol, this is most problematic with Oldman and Firth). The characters remind me of dolls instead of living, breathing people with whom to invest my emotions.
But the underlying story and darker moments make A Christmas Carol worth seeing, as does the performance by Jim Carrey, who doesn't play his usual, over-the-top self, but a sad, scraggy man who keeps to himself. I liked the morose, disturbing scenes, including the opening shot of a corpse's cold face; or the broken-jawed (and very dead) Marley trying to warn his former business partner of his imminent fate; the lost souls hovering around Scrooge's window; the scene when Scrooge is almost killed running alongside a rat; or the deathly horse with piercing red eyes that chases after Scrooge when he's shrunk down. Some of these scenes were obviously meant to show off the animation and 3-D effects, but they give us something different in this otherwise familiar story (I haven't read the novel, but apparently this version is more faithful to it than others). Really little kids may be scared by its imagery, but in a good way.
I recommend A Christmas Carol because it's entertaining and offers enough re-imagining of Dickens' tale to keep us engaged, even though most viewers will know exactly where it's going. For those who've never seen any previous adaptation (and there are some), it's more of a treat because it's fresh and the darker elements make for a more well-rounded story.
This is certainly another triumph for performance capture animation, and even though everyone involved in its creation deserves praise, I'm not convinced making human characters for these films is the way to go. Perhaps next time, Zemeckis and his talented team could tell an original story about non-humans and see how it turns out (the humans could still act out the parts). After that, I think we'd really see and appreciate what this technology has to offer.