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"Disney's A Christmas Carol": Zombies, Not Ghosts, of Christmas

Let’s start with the basics: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol long ago turned into a cartoon, at least in the public imagination. The story is utterly familiar, and Dickens’s already caricatured crackpots have become stereotypes. Few of us, probably, can easily see past the story’s surfaces (worn and crinkly, like disused wrapping paper) to the warm, beating heart beneath the clichés.

So if it is to be told again, Dickens’s story of the miserly Scrooge and the Christmas Eve that changes him shouldn’t add something “new” to its treatment; rather, it ought to strip the story of anything that might come between the audience and its characters. If we’re to be genuinely moved, again, by Scrooge’s transformation, we have to see Scrooge as a man and not a storytelling conceit, and to see Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim and Jacob Marley and the other ghosts as people and not as props.

Or, at least, we need to see them as something other than special effects, which is all Robert Zemeckis seems capable of seeing them as.

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (let us insist on Mickey’s possessory credit) is the latest motion-capture/animated film from Zemeckis, who had previously used the technique to bring Polar Express and Beowulf to the screen. Whatever one thinks of the technology, at least it sort-of/kind-of made sense for those earlier films, which needed fantastic sequences that could not have been economically made in any other way. (At least, not in a way that would have vaguely resembled a live-action film.) But IMDb lists more than two dozen previous adaptations of A Christmas Carol (not counting those, like Scrooged, that went out under other titles) going all the way back to 1908. In short, there is obviously nothing about this story that required advanced special effects. So it was technically feasible to remake it with cutting-edge imaging technology. So what?

Instead, the technology just comes between us and the story. The characters are mostly “realistic” but in all the wrong ways. You can practically count the hairs in Scrooge’s bristly eyebrows or the open pores in his absurdly hooked nose. But there is more soul and spirit in the hyper-unrealistic characters of Toy Story than in this film’s Scrooge, because that film concentrated on the characters, on detailing and distilling them, and on making sure their actions and movements revealed and reflected on them. But Scrooge, as fussily acted by Jim Carrey and filtered through layers and layers of digital prosthetics, is just an idea: the personification of crotchety miserliness that the word “scrooge” has come to denote.

Still, at least Scrooge, with his folds and wrinkles and stoop and gnarled, gnarled fingers, has some minimal characterization. Everyone else is a mobile waxwork. Motion capture still can’t get the eyes right—most of them are as dim and lusterless as the Pillsbury doughboy’s—but even the faces are slack and lifeless. Almost nothing in the film—and I’m including Jacob Marley’s hanging jaw—is as creepy as Bob Cratchit trying to register mild surprise; you half expect his entire face to slide off the front of his skull.

Probably somebody recognized that the animation (and the 3-D experience) would be wasted on a straightforward adaptation of the book, because the movie is goosed throughout with gratuitous “money shots.” Most of these are from the “swoop and zoom” school of cinematography, as the camera races over the rooftops of London and through windows. Others are bits of business—like Scrooge’s rocket ride, and a dark coach that chases him through the streets—that might have been put in to jerk sleeping audiences out of their stupor. They add nothing thematically to the movie, and in the case of the coach they pad out a sequence that would have been stronger if it had been shorter and sharper. There are spots where the technology has been put to good use. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, for instance, is all the more powerful and frightening for being an inky silhouette that steps out from the two-dimensional world into the three-dimensional. But, overall, this is not a movie that believes in less being more. It’s a movie that believes in more being more, and in too much being not nearly enough.

It’s hardly worth talking about the actors’ performances. Gary Oldman is utterly wasted as the bland Bob Cratchit, and as Jacob Marley he seems resigned to letting the special effects substitute for his talents. Cary Elwes, Bob Hoskins, Colin Firth, and other worthies whose presence would be welcome are completely unrecognizable because they’ve been so buried under the CG fat suits. As for Carrey: He knows, as Scrooge, how to act like a cartoon character; his Scottish accent owes far more to Mike Myers than (let us say) to Robert Carlyle. As the Ghost of Christmases Past and Present he is betrayed by his fatal inability to fake sincerity. Carrey has a talent for mugging, but his range is woefully narrow, and when his Santa-like Ghost of Christmas Present laughs he sounds like Ace Ventura remembering a really funny thing his butt once said.

Visually, the movie is crisp, and in 3-D it doesn’t overdo the inevitable “throw something at the audience and make them duck” bits. Maybe Zemeckis saw too late that his movie was emotionally lifeless, because composer Alan Silvestri has provided a thunderously oppressive score, and one so boomingly overproduced it makes the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sound like a barbershop quartet.

Disney’s A Christmas Carol is Hollywood filmmaking at its most depressingly decadent. Sterile technology smothers (where it doesn’t simply replace) artistry; spectacle substitutes for drama. It’s all the more depressing because this kind of technology can have its place, as an adjunct to storytelling. But this movie is as crudely mercenary as its unreformed protagonist. Like Scrooge himself, Disney’s A Christmas Carol feels content to count the money its producing corporations intend to rake in at the box office, and to let an audience craving real nourishment go hungry.

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