Director Robert Zemeckis has a lot to live up to. His motion capture adaptation of the perennial holiday ghost story A Christmas Carol has 150 years of being realized, re-born and re-interpreted again and again. If you’ve been alive at any point since 1843, you probably have your favorite iteration, ranging from the original publication to the stage plays to the 1951 film classic (winner!). It’s clear Robert Zemeckis realized this when he approached his wowie tech version of A Christmas Carol, but with a tale of humanity at its center, does it all come together?
Thanks to the beating heart of a timeless story, yes. But it’s inevitably hindered by the cold limitations and technical focus of Zemeckis’ motion capture animation.
The tale is familiar: Scrooge (Jim Carrey) is a crusty old jerk. He hates Christmas, but most of all he hates people. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge gets his when he’s visited by four ghosts who allow him to review his life and its future, giving the old crank a change of heart and causing him to see and share in the joy of humanity.
To his credit, Zemeckis stays mostly true to Dickens’ classic, though there’s enough emphasis on the scary ghost story to give parents pause when taking their young children: For a “family” movie the macabre is surprisingly punched up. As counterbalance, Zemeckis does attempt to infuse his A Christmas Carol with a modern dose of kid-friendly roller coaster/thrill ride inspired modernization ala a bottle-rocketed trip across the moon and a scene better titled “Honey, I Shrunk the Scrooge” (both of which you’ve seen in the trailer). Each of these scenes feel weirdly out of place and the introduction of zany slapstick feels more like padding and infantilization than a real stab at revarnishing the story for modern audiences.
The same tonal criticism holds true for the animation– A Christmas Carol is richly detailed, but with so much emphasis on making the animation photo-real, the characters still inhabit a cartoonish quality which, at times, make the proceedings feel like a pixelated marionette show. On that level, A Christmas Carol loses some immersion the same way its dead-faced spiritual predecessors The Polar Express and Beowulf did. Virtually every frame comes off as technical exercise– as if the whole process is more concerned with the textile details in a set of drapes, subsequently relying on the motion capture technology to address character performance. Nowhere is this more evident than the finale, where the crowd-pleasing Scrooge-becomes-lovable payoff — the point of the whole story– is wrapped up in just a few beat-by-beat minutes.
Hence the crux of A Christmas Carol’s weakness: By eschewing the hyper-stylized, exaggerated realism of animation for a motion capture system that doesn’t have the soul of tactile human emotion, there’s an unnerving lifelessness to the characters. When Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman)–reduced here to a creepy hobgoblin Clint Howard/Gary Oldman love child– can’t achieve the crucially sentimental story connection he’s meant to employ, the result is an audience watching the movie at arms length.
But while the film certainly has weaknesses, they don’t sink A Christmas Carol. In fact, Jim Carrey’s subtle performance as Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future is a very good one, thanks in large part to a welcome dose of subtlety and a lack of the usual Carrey-centric eccentricities. The gorgeous animation is incredibly lush and you can all but feel the the cold, foggy streets of London and the crisp winter landscapes of nearby villages. The whole process is made even more vibrant by the now-standard and almost immersive Disney Digital 3D process. Inevitably, however, under all the whiz-bangery, Disney’s A Christmas Carol can attribute its buoyancy to Dickens’ surprisingly timely Christmas fantasy and its insistence on remaining a story worth telling.
Disney’s A Christmas Carol will certainly win the weekend, but whether it has the ability to endure as a holiday classic remains to be seen. For now, A Christmas Carol is an enjoyable experience, just not a lasting one.