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"A Christmas Carol" Blu-ray: All the Predictability in High Definition

Look! It's Robert Zemeckis' Ugly-Ass Christmas Carol!Just a couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see Back to the Future in theaters, which I had never done before. Great experience, by the way. In the recent months, I’ve also re-watched Cast Away, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the two BTTF sequels. Why do I bring all this up? Well, Robert Zemeckis has been fresh in my mind lately. And after watching A Christmas Carol, also directed by him, it made me pine for his earlier work. His recent movies just don’t have the same iconic nature and originality, and seem more like elaborate tech demos than stories.

On the surface, A Christmas Carol still retains all the ingredients of the famous Charles Dickens tale: Grouchy, old, uncaring penny-pincher Ebenezer Scrooge has a change of heart after being visited by three spirits and realizing that his bitterness has alienated everyone he knows, and will do him in if he’s not careful. You’ve got Scrooge being a slave driver to his only employee Bob Cratchit, the flashback scenes, people close to Scrooge making fun of him behind his back, and “This is my grave!” So one can at least say the movie doesn’t stray from its roots, for the most part.

But, perhaps that’s part of the problem. It goes through the motions of the overly familiar story and doesn’t really offer Zemeckis’s own viewpoint of the tale to come through. Even if “unfaithful”, a version which really explored the Scrooge character by potentially taking liberties would, at the very least, be interesting. But none of the characters here seem to have much personality displayed on-screen, which is directly inverse to classic characters from other Zemeckis movies; Doc, Marty McFly, Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump (among others) are all much more alive and interesting than anyone here. The movie is lacking a soul: It’s a rather cold movie, and I don’t mean its wintery surroundings. Furthermore, it’s rather hard to be emotionally moved by this movie if everyone and their mother has remade it or parodied it at some point. While I wasn’t a fan of The Polar Express, at least it felt like an original Christmas tale, despite also being based off a book. It wasn’t well-worn territory.

Man, how did I end up in such an ugly-ass movie?To compensate for the predictable nature of the done-to-death story, Zemeckis added some ultimately superfluous action scenes that seem more to show off the technology than to enhance the narrative. For example, in the scene with The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Scrooge is shrunk to mouse size and is chased through the city streets and sewer pipes by a Death-operated horse and carriage, goes sliding out of control on rooftops and hits a bunch of icicles, and in general gets into all kinds of near-death calamities before finally arriving at his future grave. It was flashy stuff, yes, but when you get right down to it, those scenes could’ve been taken out and they wouldn’t have made much of a difference to the story.

The distracting CG doesn’t help. I say “distracting” because the film (as well as his previous efforts like The Polar Express and Beowulf) wants to have its cake and eat it too: It wants to be a cartoon, but also essentially replicate real life. So what you get is an awkward hybrid, one in which neither the animated nor the real life imitation quite works. I ended up looking for holes in the animation (such as stiff or unnatural movements, or moments when the characters had too little weight to their actions) instead of focusing on the story and characters. When people make the criticism of “this could’ve been done in live action”, this is what they mean; yes, motion capture CG offers possibilities in lighting, stunts, and camera angles that would be difficult to create in live action without a green screen and lots of stunt work, but at least with live action, you’d be looking at convincing actual actors, not imitations that can be distracting (particularly with Scrooge himself, who looks too much like Jim Carrey, the man portraying him). On the plus side, the environments are well-done, I’ll give them that. The movie truly looks and feels like 19th century England at Christmas time, so credit where credit is due.

Robin Wright Penn is NOT made better in mocap CGI, she's made into an ugly-ass mannequinSpecial features on the 2-disc Blu-ray set are modest. Most are dedicated to Zemeckis gushing about how great he thinks the mo-cap CG technology is. His feature-length commentary track (complete with picture-in-picture of the actors in session with mo-cap suits, which can be toggled in size) is predominantly technology-oriented. It’s hard to hate his passion for this medium, and there are very few silence gaps, but he does tend to go over the same kind of points over and over, due to the lack of variety in what he talks about. A featurette on how the mo-cap CG works and a very brief day on the set with Sammi Hanratty cover much of the same things, but also include interviews with cast and crew members. We get a few deleted scenes, which are very odd; as none of them are finished, often real life facial footage of the actors in mo-cap session are superimposed onto the CG models. None of the deleted scenes are that essential to the story, so I can see why they were cut. Finally, there’s a “countdown to Christmas” interactive feature, which is pretty worthless. Basically, you click on a new present (a still screenshot) for every day counting down to the holiday. So if you want to insert your Christmas Carol Blu-ray every day for a month, this is for you!

A Christmas Carol, much like Zemeckis’s earlier experiments, is more concerned with the flash than telling a unique, quality story. It’s not an excruciating experience; Alan Silvestri’s Christmas-themed soundtrack is nice, and there are brief touches that I enjoyed. But for a movie about a man who has a change of heart, it’s sadly hollow, and it doesn’t tell us much we don’t already know about the Scrooge character. As I’m not well-versed in all the Christmas Carol adaptions out there, I won’t recommend which version is better than this one, but I don’t think you’ll have to look far.

(By the way, I’m aware of the irony that criticizing this movie makes me look like a Scrooge myself, so don’t bother pointing that out)

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