Friday, November 6, 2009

From the Archive: "A Christmas Carol" Film Review

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition! In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features. You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “A Christmas Carol”

 From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
a Christmas Carol
Originally Published November 6th, 2009

The marketing people at Disney really need to get a reality check, or at least take a refresher course in their trade, because the marketing for Robert Zemeckis’s take on A Christmas Carol is one of the most mishandled film campaigns I’ve ever seen.  The trailers, which advertised the movie as an action/comedy, not only gave me no confidence in the film, but made me actively loath the idea of ever seeing it.  I understood Disney wanting to be kid-friendly, but pandering to the lowest common denominator?  That I would not tolerate in an adaptation of one of history’s greatest books, and the only thing that got me into the theater were the reviews that first informed me how woefully misguided the marketing was.  Indeed, these reviews were right, because Zemeckis and friends have made a very faithful, extremely creative, and surprisingly dark (not at all kid-friendly) adaptation of the classic tale.

Furthermore, Disney’s marketing team chose a release date of November 6th, just past Halloween with another major holiday yet to come before Christmas actually arrives.  A Christmas Carol filled me with so much joy and Christmas spirit that, when I left the theater, I expected to see snow in the air, and to return home to a house filled with Christmas decorations and a wonderfully garnished tree.  Then I remembered that it’s November 6th, and that Christmas is still a long ways off.  That weakened the experience somewhat for me, and the real shame is that this excellent movie probably won’t be playing in theaters come Christmas day.

But enough about the terrible marketing—let’s talk about the film itself, and what a film it is!  Charles Dickens’ classic is one of my favorite books, and I’ve poured over it many times.  Over the years I’ve watched many different films based on the novella, all with their own strengths and weaknesses.  In the year 2009, it’s hard to accept the addition of yet another film to the mix, but one of the most astounding things about Zemeckis’ movie is how effortlessly it earns its existence. 

After 2000’s Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis gave up on traditional, live-action filmmaking in favor of performance-capture animation.  His first foray into the medium was The Polar Express, a very good Christmas tale that was nevertheless held back by the “uncanny valley” effect of the animation.  That is to say, the animators strived so hard for photo-realism that the flaws became even more noticeable.  This effect was enhanced in Beowulf, a film that would have been awful in live-action, but was made worse by the downright terrible (and creepy in all the wrong ways) animation.  When I heard that Zemeckis would be making A Christmas Carol in this art-form, I though it to be a total waste of time and money.

So color me surprised that, for the first time, Zemeckis has finally used performance capture in the way he’s always obviously wanted to.  The animation in A Christmas Carol is astounding from beginning to end, with only a few weak spots here and there.  Zemeckis didn’t strive for photo-realism so much this time around—the characters look like cartoons, which makes it easier for our eyes to accept them.  Scrooge himself is a fine example of this.  He’s got a long chin and a hooked nose, and is visually one of the most effective portrayals of the character ever committed to screen.  Some of the characters look like their live action counterparts, but for the most part, Zemeckis takes a more stylized approach. 

The result is a beautiful looking movie, one that is incredibly detailed and visually rich.  Zemeckis obviously understands the advantages of a visual medium, and instead of having a narrator tell us what Dickens said about Scrooge and London, he shows us what Dickens wrote through the animation.  All the same feelings and emotions the book generates are created here, but in a visual way.  Along the way, Zemeckis adds many artistic flourishes that never change the meaning of Dickens’ work, but instead enhance it greatly.  The visual element of the movie definitely gives it a leg up over many other film incarnations.

Still, the visuals wouldn’t matter without a story backing them up, and the script (written by Zemeckis) is a fine specimen indeed.  For the most part, it’s a very straightforward adaptation of the book—when Zemeckis embellishes or makes changes, he does it visually, which is a great choice.  Many of the classic lines are represented here, and the dialogue is never updated to suit modern audiences.  Furthermore, the script takes some of the darker parts of the book and enhances them.  The concept of Marley wearing a scarf to hold his jaw in place or the Ghost of Christmas Present concealing Ignorance and Want under his cloak have never been illustrated in such dark, grotesque, and dare I say powerful ways on screen.  As such, this is not a kid’s movie.  Children of young ages probably won’t understand the dialogue or thematic material, and when the movie gets intense it doesn’t pull any punches.  For adults, however, this is one of the most literate and meaningful retellings of the story ever done, and that made me a very happy viewer.

Jim Carrey’s casting as Scrooge did not give me much confidence in the film—Carrey hasn’t done a good movie in years and I assumed Disney was just exploiting his fame.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  As Ebenezer Scrooge, Carrey gives one of his all-time best performances, and proves that his talents might just be wasted on comedy.  His Scrooge is an extremely bitter, extremely frail man who has, for all intents and purposes, already died.  His only links to the mortal world are the coins he grips so tightly.  Carrey understands the character intimately, and plays the role pitch-perfect throughout.  His best scene comes when we see a young Scrooge driving away his fiancée.  Robin Wright Penn is excellent opposite him, but it’s Carrey who sells the scene on dramatic weight alone.  When Scrooge shouts and slams his fist on the desk unexpectedly, I fell in love with the movie—it’s that simple.

Carrey also plays the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future (though Future has no dialogue) and is just as excellent in these roles.  The film’s interpretation of all three is very different than what I’ve seen before, but they are uniformly exquisite, especially the Ghost of Christmas Present, who slowly ages as the scene progresses.  Carrey gives the ghosts different accents and distinct personalities.  Best of all, the viewer is never once clued into the fact that Carrey is playing all the roles.

Gary Oldman takes on multiple jobs as well, playing both Bob Cratchit and Jacob Marley.  These two performances are very different but also very powerful.  Cratchit doesn’t have much screen time, but the minutes Oldman has stick with you, and his scene as Marley is a show-stopper.  Cary Elwes, Colin Firth, and Bob Hoskins all show up as well, and all play their respective parts with gusto.

Though I was prepared to hate the film, I ended up loving nearly every minute of Disney’s A Christmas Carol.  I say nearly because the film’s third act contains a five-minute chase scene that comes totally out of left field and made me scratch my head in bewilderment—it’s one of the most pointless sequences I’ve ever watched.  Despite that small setback, Robert Zemeckis and Jim Carrey have made one hell of a movie.  Everything I love about the book is represented here, with all the subtext, metaphor, and deeper meaning intact.  It’s an adaptation that stands among the best retellings of A Christmas Carol, and one that will find its way into my regular rotation of Christmas movies.  It’s really a shame the film couldn’t be released closer to the actual holiday.         

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