Well, you didn’t hear this from me, but it’s really starting to look as if a bunch of Hollywood producers and directors met up at some sort of illicit meeting, where these nefarious types get together to scare the living hell of your children. The poor things have barely just recovered from Spike Jonze’s Wild Things adaptation, and now Robert Zemeckis has whipped up a 3D motion-capture film (his third, after Beowulf and The Polar Express) that will not only make the kiddies’ hair stand on end but also cause it to flee back into follicle-land. So, do enjoy your bald kid, but let me also emphasize the seldomness with which I specifically mention my own daughter’s opinion on movies because, as most parents can probably attest, kids dig almost everything that’s tossed their way in the theater. None of us exactly begins life with impeccible taste (with the exception of Lil’ Pajiba, who, presumably, sleeps underneath a Ryan Reynolds poster and has been righteously schooled on the relative merits of “Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place”). Hell, my daughter had the audacity to enjoy a certain Tyler Perry movie (the sitter crapped out on me that day, which meant a lovely discussion about racism and sexism during the car ride home) merely because, after two hours of boredom, it ended with a dancing scene. A few years later, things have gotten a bit better, and, when it comes to the subject matter of this review, my daughter is already familiar with the original Charles Dickens tale in its printed incarnation, and she’s seen a few of the existing movie adaptations. Even so, I witnessed a certain nine-year old covering her eyes at least a dozen times while watching Disney’s (yes, that Disney) version of a A Christmas Carol.
Most (if not all) post-puberty moviegoers already know the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge, so spoilers are really a non-issue here. What matters is how well the story is portrayed, how well the motion-capture technology works, and whether the well-known cast carries their end of the deal. To be certain, this isn’t your typical saccharine-laden Disney flick, which tends to cheerily obliterate original subject matter, and there’s a lot to be said for breaking that Disney mold. Still, it seems that Zemeckis, while adapting the screenplay and directing, never really stopped to contemplate his intended audience. Don’t get me wrong though—this is a truly spectacular film and, arguably, the most faithful adaptation of Dicken’s 1843 novella in terms of spirit. However, this is an alarmingly frightening movie for its (presumably) intended Disneyfied audience, and parents should be strongly cautioned for exposing any child under the age of twelve to this flick.
Visually speaking, A Christmas Carol is what critics would describe as breathtaking, particularly during Scrooge’s flights with the Ghost of Christmas Past. Of course, Dickensian London is a largely coal-coated, filthy, and wretched sight to behold, and, despite the Christmas Eve setting, none of the gloom or poverty are played down here, nor should they be. A Christmas Carol is not a warm and fuzzy tale, nor is it filled with characters with whom you’d grab Sunday brunch. Throughout his career, Charles Dickens excelled at capturing the grotesque realism of life, and Zemeckis has taken great care to replicate this vision; but it’s not a terribly pretty process, and things become downright horrifying when the supernatural arrives at Scrooge’s gloomy manor. When old business partner Marley arrives, he is proceeded by the rattling of chains that are soon flung mercilessly into the audience (if you’re doing the 3D thing), and, in a grisly spectacle, his seven-year-dead jaw actually becomes unhinged while warning Scrooge of his impending visitors. The respective ghosts also contribute their own respective creepiness into the mix, and while the Ghost of Christmas Past appears as a cute flame-headed candle, things quickly take a more ominous turn with the Ghost of Christmas Present, who starts out as a jolly old Santa Claus type but devolves into a malignant, laughing menace who not only reveals two feral children beneath his robes but then dissolves into a shrieking skeleton. This horror is amplified by Ghost of Things Yet To Come, a shadowy figure who merely points to indicators of doom, but then Zemeckis takes things further by shrinking Scrooge down to rodent size and forcing him to flee from a hearse, which is drawn by horses with frightening red eyes that resemble that of a Terminator. Scrooge’s tale is a cautionary one that dearly frightens him, and the film means to frighten its audience as well.
All of this is done in an extraordinary manner, and, quite clearly, Zemeckis has steadily improved upon his motion-capture obsession, in which the actors are filmed before getting tweaked into animation oblivion. Some actors draw a better hand than others, and Jim Carrey, who not only plays Scrooge at all ages but also the three ghosts who torment him, is visible in all of his incarnations. Slightly less lucky is Colin Firth, who looks quite botoxed but still recognizable as Scrooge’s optimistic nephew, Fred. Poor Gary Oldman though, in his turns as the ghost of Marley, Cratchit (Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk), and Tiny Tim (Cratchit’s son), is another matter altogether and ends up looking like a damn Hobbit. Oddly, in a bit of a A Princess Bride reunion, both Robin Wright Penn and Cary Elwes pop in for a few bit roles, but the focus is far removed from these players and, instead, centered upon Scrooge. Of course, not even Scrooge exists to be analyzed as a full-fledged character, and comparing him to today’s excessively captialistic villains — say, Kenneth Lay or Bernie Madoff — would prove to be a fruitless exercise. Similarly, any other meaning-seeking questions are rather irrelevant here, and we needn’t wonder why Scrooge gets a second chance to right the wrongs set in place by a life of bitterness, while so many spirits are doomed to haunt the Earth. What we have here is a ghost story, no more and no less, and that’s how Dickens wrote it, and if you think Scrooge’s sudden change of heart is supposed to make sense, well, you’d be wrong about that. Overall, this version of A Christmas Carol takes us back to where Dickens began, which is magnificent place to visit, that is, unless it scares the crap out of you.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be found at agentbedhead.com.