It’s that time of year when you can’t turn on the television without falling over another adaptation of Charles Dickens’ seminal Christmas classic. It seems that every single channel has yet another different version of it for each day of the Yuletide.
It means that if your version is going to stand out and get noticed among this clamour, it really has to have outstanding Unique Selling Point, and in the case of Disney’s 2009 retelling of the tale the USP is without question the state of the art CGI animation and motion capture performances. This, it turns out, is not only the film’s biggest strength – it’s also the root cause of many of its most serious weaknesses.
There’s no question that the film looks exquisite throughout: almost every single frame could be printed out and sold as a piece of art. It’s stunning to look at, and remarkably authentic to Victorian-era London (albeit an inevitably cleaned-up, sanitised version) soon giving way to the more eye-popping imaginative ghostly episodes. When the story heaves closely to the Dickens text – and it does so a remarkable amount of the time – the film threatens to become the definitive cinematic telling of A Christmas Carol of all time. The combination of computer visuals and literary genius combines brilliantly when the script faithfully lifts whole scenes and passages of dialogue from the book, and even includes some parts rarely included in film adaptations such as the emergence of ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Want’ as the Ghost of Christmas Present expires.
If only the whole film were like this. Even as things stand, it would be easy to spend the entire 96 minutes running time just gaping at the glorious visuals. Unfortunately, it seems as though writer-director Robert Zemeckis ended up succumbing to his own temptation to do just that, because in other areas it seems that he took his eye off the ball in crafting much of the remainder of the film.
For one thing, the whole thing is so oddly uneven in tone and approach. It lurches from deadly serious to knock-about comedy, from some intensely dark nightmarish sequences to inane pratfals, from serious character study to action-adventure nonsense, and not just from scene to scene but from moment to moment.Granted, Dickens himself used to combine a heady brew of all sorts of different styles and approaches within his works, but Dickens was a master of the art who knew how to blend the whole confection together to make the perfect end dish; this film just seems to be throwing things in hoping to achieve the same result but instead just appears confused and ends up irritating.
The representation of the characters is a case in point of the uneven approach and tone. Many critics have taken against Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge but I found him a perfectly fine lead and his portrayal well within the top half of all-time performances in the role. (Motion capture also enables him to essay the three Ghosts as well, which might be a bit of Carrey-overkill for some but for me is far less annoyingly apparent than Tom Hanks’ one-note multiple performances in Zemeckis’ The Polar Express.) The design and animation of Scrooge is also top notch and not remotely physically reminiscent of Carrey.
But other characters are presented in a more satirical fashion, presumably inspired by the bright and breezy illustrations that accompanied Dickens’ original story when it was published in 1843, with the film deliberately lampooning the physical appearance of the actor playing the part (Gary Oldman’s features clearly apparent in Bob Cratchit, Bob Hoskins evident in Mr. Fezziwig, and no mistaking the face of Colin Firth as Scrooge’s nephew Fred.) This is both deeply distracting and very jarring to the viewer familiar with those actors, and also a strange waste of CGI and motion capture: why bother to use those technologies only to render an unsettling computer version of the actor after all? In the end these characters are too photo-realistic to be cartoons, and yet too cartoonish to be real, and instead just seem to exist to show everyone how clever the filmmakers are being with this new technology.
Even worse is the way that Zemeckis never misses a chance to take the ‘camera’ point of view on a long swooping flight through the streets of London, high into the air or down through drainpipes – the sort of long single-take sequences utterly impossible to do in the real world but which can be achieved to perfection with CGI-rendered virtual environments. The first time the film does this (over the opening credits) it is superb, and if Zemeckis had left it there then I would have stood up and cheered him. But no, every five minutes he loses interest in the film’s story and plays with his CGI toolbox and 3D gimmicks all over again, with severely diminishing returns every time. The absolute nadir is when he interrupts the crucial lessons from the Ghost of Christmas Future – what the entire film is leading up in terms of character progression for Scrooge – in order to stage a witless and irrelevant chase through the streets of London involving a now-miniaturised Scrooge.
That sequence might play well to the youngest viewers of the film, but they’ll probably wet themselves at the truly disturbing sequences that surround it – so really it comes down to exactly who is this film aimed at? The serious Dickens fan will be dismayed by the Disneyfication of the film and by its technical excesses, while the younger kids will be bored during the serious parts and terrified during the darkest moments. Without a consistency, there’s no real sense of a living, beating heart at the centre of this film – a particular issue when the subject matter is the expression of joy at Yuletide – and instead it appears as a mechanical construct going through the motions to show off its shiny new modern techniques. At least the motion-capture techniques have improved so the point where we no longer have the problem of the “thousand yard dead eye stare” that used to plague such CGI endeavours.
At the very end, there’s the most curious shift of all: out of nowhere, the animated Bob Cratchit suddenly turns to camera and starts talking to us, a ‘breaking the fourth wall’ conceit not prefigured anywhere in the preceding film as it is, say, in The Muppet Christmas Carol where the presence of a storyteller in the form of Gonzo’s Dickens surrogate is established right at the start. The Cratchit piece-to-camera in this 2009 film is a shock, bizarre and just plain careless. (Incidentally, for what it’s worth I do think that the film could have been helped immeasurably if only there had been a few muppets in the cast …)
It’s really Zemeckis who has to take the blame for failing to make a decision about the overall vision, as he’s not only the director but also the writer and producer so it really was his role to figure all this out and make it work. But let’s also give him credit where it’s due, because the overall visual look is still utterly spectacular and the moments that do work – the serious parts where Dickens’ source story shines through – are really quite superb.
If only the whole film had proved to be like that. As it is, the film does just enough to ensure that the moments on Christmas Day when Scrooge wakes up a changed man are still effective and uplifting, and for that alone you have to mark the film as more of a hit than a miss despite its problems. Whether that’s a credit to Disney and Zemeckis or whether it’s really all testament to the raw power and brilliance of Dickens’ narrative prose and creative imagination is another matter entirely.
Disney’s A Christmas Carol was on BBC1 on Christmas Eve and is repeated at various times over the following week as well as being available on the BBC iPlayer. It is available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray and also as a 3D Blu-ray release.