It’s Jim Carrey, Jim Carrey, and more Jim Carrey staring in another of Robert Zemeckis’ motion capture Christmas movies. Zemeckis follows-up his Tom Hanks train-and-Santa flick, The Polar Express, with the granddaddy of them all. Charles Dickens’ age-old tale gets a modern technology facelift and a whole lot of somewhat subdued Carrey. The combination is an entertaining, if not earth-shattering, addition to the Ebenezer Scrooge canon.
It’s hard to make a fresh run at A Christmas Carol. The timeless tale, published first in 1843, has been the subject of numerous film, television, and theatrical versions. What can Jim Carrey and Robert Zemeckis bring to the party that hasn’t already been brought by Alistair Sim, George C. Scott, Bill Murray, Kermit the Frog, Patrick Stewart, or one of a score of others? Motion capture animation, a restrained performance by Carrey, and a (somewhat) faithful adherence to the text, that’s what. Zemeckis has done himself reasonably proud.
The plot is familiar. Miserly Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) thinks Christmas is nothing but a “humbug” and rejects the happiness of the season personified by his nephew, Fred (Colin Firth), and his overworked and underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman). He’s visited by his old, dead partner, Marley (Oldman again), and told he will be visited by three ghosts (all Carrey) who take him to the past, present, and future to show him that he’s a real douche bag and needs to not be. He sees Cratchit’s family, including the possibly dying Tiny Tim (Oldman again!), himself at various ages (all Carrey again!) blowing love with the lovely Belle (Robin Wright Penn), and his ultimate lonely death. He ends up -- spoiler alert! -- not a miserly douche bag, and everyone lives as happily ever after as you can in 1840s London.
Zemeckis, who wrote the screenplay as well as directing and co-producing, has stayed pretty close to the book (as near as I can remember), and that’s a plus. It’s good to hear that dialogue delivered in Carrey’s old-man croak and nice that much of the true darkness of the tale doesn’t get left behind to make the story more modern or “family-friendly” (code for appealing to an elementary schooler and no one else.) Some bad mojo runs through this story, and Zemeckis points you right at it.
Still, Zemeckis loves him some slapsticky action, and he puts enough into the story that Disney could market it as something young boys would enjoy and not some fuddy ghost story from 150 years ago. It goes overboard a couple of times and feels both like pandering and padding, but the writer/director really seems to be restraining himself. That restraint also rubbed off on Carrey who doesn’t use silly voices or mugging but plays Scrooge (at every conceivable age) and the ghosts relatively straight. His work in the motion capture suit seems to come through in the animated characters he plays, and he delivers a Scrooge that holds its own with some of the better ones (like Sim and Stewart).
The animation itself can be visually thrilling. There are tons of swooping and flying shots that zip you over and around old-timey London with intricate detail. The “this was supposed to look awesome in 3-D moments” are everywhere, but since this set is the 2-D version only, a little of the impact is lost. Also, when they move to some “reality based” animation tricks, like the dance at Fezziwig’s (Bob Hoskins), where Mrs. Fezziwig spins like a top eight feet in the air, it just looks, well, bad. At least there isn’t the creepy feeling you got when you watched the same motion capture/animation combo of Polar Express, but the quieter scenes still seem to lack that certain human something. Zemeckis’ obvious infatuation with the medium is making him a little blind to its drawbacks.
Finally, can I just say that if Eddie Murphy taught us anything, it’s that one guy playing a zillion characters in the same movie isn’t a good idea? Carrey, Oldman, Hoskins, Cary Elwes, and several others play multiple characters, and it doesn’t really add anything to the movie. Why do it? Is it a cost thing? Is it because they can animate them different ways (Oldman is unrecognizable as Marley, so why have him do it and not another good actor?) Zemeckis loves this concept almost as much as motion capture (see Express, Polar and Future, Back to the, for more examples.) It wasn’t a good idea back when Michael J. Fox played his own daughter, and it’s not a good idea now. Get off it, Bob.
Still, this is a nice grown-up, but still ok for kids, addition to the Christmas Carol options every year. They deserve some props for sticking closely to the story and for keeping things a bit on the dark and scary side.
Disney has released a 3-D version of the movie on Blu-ray, but we received the 2-D version for review, which includes a Blu-ray along with a DVD copy of the movie. Unfortunately, there is no digital copy; you have to get the slightly more expensive 3-D set to get that. I’m trying to hold the line on 3-D movies in the theater, generally going to see the 2-D versions and not paying the “premium” ticket price, and I don’t see any reason to change that stance for my home entertainment decisions.
The lack of 3-D and a digital copy doesn’t mean this disc is lacking in cool features. First off, it has a stunning HD version of the movie. It's a visual film, and seeing it in HD is just fantastic. Say what you will about the whole motion capture look, it’s realistic and the attention to detail makes it even more realistic. Sometimes a bit soulless, but realistic. Great sound and picture are going to enhance your home enjoyment, so try to get the HD version rather than watching it on DVD.
The best reason, after the great picture, to get the Blu-ray version is “Behind the Carol”, a full-length, picture-in-picture extra that shows the motion capture equivalent of every scene. So while you see Scrooge walking down the street in the movie, you see Carrey with a motion capture suit walking in a giant white room. It’s shot for shot, the entire movie in the picture-in-picture box. You can even make the motion capture version the bigger picture and the movie the smaller one. If you ever wondered what it looks like to shoot this kind of movie, this is a fascinating extra.
Director/writer/producer Robert Zemeckis adds to the enjoyment by providing an enthusiastic commentary to the motion capture segments. It functions like a regular commentary track, although Zemeckis talks more about how motion capture works than the movie than movie in general. That said, Zemeckis, while engaging and entertaining, is ENAMORED with the medium and gushes like it’s the greatest thing since moveable type. He doesn’t seem to see the drawbacks, so he makes it out like it’s better than a good live action movie with great actors. Which it’s not. Also, you can’t get a commentary track without getting the picture-in-picture motion capture turned on. At least I couldn’t figure out how, so that’s a drawback if you just want the movie and the commentary. Although it would have required that Zemeckis record something different, since his current commentary track focuses mostly on what’s happening in the motion capture area rather than the finished movie.
The rest of the extras pale in comparison to the picture-in-picture option. There is a 15-minute "making of" called “Capturing Dickens: A Novel Retelling.” It’s pretty standard, although they do have a host, an actress who played any overweight female character in the movie and tries for a knowing, silly attitude that comes across more annoying than humorous. Still, it has a basic motion capture primer and a bunch of producers saying how faithful they were to the book and how you just couldn’t do this movie in live action. Also, that all the added thrill-ride-type scenes were just as Dickens wrote them, which I think is a bunch of baloney.
While not an excellent movie, this is a solid flick, and watching it on Blu-ray is an enjoyable pre-Christmas activity. If you’re one of those technical geeks, the motion capture education will really draw you in, and Zemeckis makes an effective cheerleader for the medium. The rest of the disc is only so-so, but don’t miss a chance to check this out in some form.