When it was announced that Robert Zemeckis was directing an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” starring Jim Carrey and made with 3D motion-capture, my response was viciously negative. Zemeckis had left behind movies like “Back to the Future” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, movies with characters and charming stories, in favor of 3D motion-captured films featuring CG characters who resembled the voice actor except they were trapped deep within the uncanny valley (the place where CG facsimiles of people look like very expensive animatronics). Throwing Jim Carrey into the mix to have him constantly mug for the camera made the idea of a 3D motion-captured film even more unappealing. And “A Christmas Carol”? How many times do we need to see this story? Seeing it in 3D with Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge was an argument not to make the movie. (Hit the jump to find out why all these perceived flaws are actually the film’s greatest strengths.)
And then I saw the opening scene of the film at Comic-Con and the first line of Dickens’ take: “Marley was dead.” Coupled with the scene of Marley’s ghost terrorizing Scrooge, I’ve been excited for the movie ever since. “A Christmas Carol” is not only another step forward in the field of 3D motion-capture cinema, but an adaptation which realizes that when you have ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, you have a ghost story and ghost stories are supposed to be scary. “A Christmas Carol” will make your little children cry and I really enjoyed the movie (there may be a loose correlation between the two).
Since you already know the story, I’ll explain what Zemeckis has done to make it worth your time. To begin, as he showed with his prior film, “Beowulf”, he’s beyond shooting objects out of the screen just because he can. The purpose of 3D in “A Christmas Carol” is for infinite depth of field and uninterrupted camera movement. These are the advantages of all 3D films, not throwing a yo-yo out of the screen.
Where “A Christmas Carol” takes a huge step forward is in motion capture and CGI-humans. Through a new program used to track retinal movements, Zemeckis has solved the “dead-eye” problem and while there are few characters who still seem animatronic, most of all Scrooge’s nephew Fred (Colin Firth), Scrooge is alive. The character’s greatest technical asset is his age so that the facial movements are distinct and the tightness of the skin allows for subtle tics and tiny details which make the character feel realistic but not pretending as if this isn’t animation. With the eye-problem solved, Zemeckis’ next challenge will be skin as the film’s chubbier and younger characters still look off.
But why aim for verisimilitude of Jim Carrey when you have Jim Carrey? What’s the point other than proving that you can? While it would be no challenge to put Scrooge-makeup on Carrey, the advantage of the animation is that it can de-age him. He can play his character as a child, as a young man, as the flickering, child-like Ghost of Christmas Past, and the hearty Ghost of Christmas Present. Gary Oldman can play not only Bob Cratchit, but Cratchit’s son Tiny Tim, and Scrooge’s former partner, Jacob Marley. It’s not a matter of trying to save money on actors, but a thoughtful reason for having one actor play multiple roles. This is not an Eddie Murphy movie.
Also unlike an Eddie Murphy movie, “A Christmas Carol” intentionally scares children. As I said before, this is a ghost story and parents should know that if they pay the $15 per ticket to the 3D version, they may only get to see about thirty minutes of the film before their child wants to leave. If you pay to see the IMAX 3D version, tell your kid that the economy sucks and they’ll have to tough it out. There was a time when it was okay to have scary moments in kids’ movies. Parents will be left wondering how this movie and “Where the Wild Things Are” got PG ratings. My answer: they don’t have swear words. You’re welcome.
It’s simple to dismiss Robert Zemeckis and his ongoing quest to tell stories in 3D with motion capture but I’m learning to have faith in him. “A Christmas Carol” speaks in a Dickensian English with some serious vocabulary for a family film, features scares that even adults will find unnerving, and if not for a 5-minute set piece that’s out of place with the rest of the film’s tone, this version is a successful telling of the tale. You’ll still cringe with, “God bless us…everyone!” but that one is on Dickens; give some credit to Robert Zemeckis.
Rating —- B