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In Disney’s A Christmas Carol Ebenezer Scrooge is at his scroogiest. He shouts and bah humbugs until, as the story always goes, he returns home on Christmas Eve to be confronted by a series of ghosts. Little in the now all too familiar tale has been changed for this particular retelling, but it’s a story which never tires or grows old. The specifics haven’t changed but the look of the thing has, with Director Robert Zemeckis and his team of whiz-bang effects artists turning it into a blend of motion capture and computer animation, the same process which Zemeckis applied to The Polar Express back in 2004.
Except unlike The Polar Express, in which the animation resulted in something unintentionally creepy, when A Christmas Carol is creepy it’s mostly only because it wants to be. The difference isn’t the quality of animation used so much as a shift in the types of characters focused on. Simply put, Zemeckis’ animation process is an utter failure when it comes to rendering children. Without wrinkles or facial hair to hide the too perfect sheen of obvious digitizing, their attempts to create photorealistic characters with digitizing resulted in something terrifying, re-animated puppets without strings, demon-possessed, dead-eyed freaks spat out from hell and into a Christmas movie. But in A Christmas Carol most of their animation efforts are focused on Scrooge, a mass of wrinkles and scowls which hide the flaws in their process. And when they’re not focused on Ebenezer their skills are put to work on creatively spooky ghosts who, luckily, are meant to be creepy and are.
What I’m getting at here is that the animation works well enough to create a brand new world for a very familiar tale to play itself out in. It’s most successful though when we’re spending time solely with Jim Carrey, whose face and voice were used to construct not only Ebenezer Scrooge, but three of the movie’s four ghosts. In essence Ebenezer spends much of the movie talking to himself, though you’d never know it unless you stick around for the credits. Carrey’s work here is pitch perfect, and if the movie falters it’s only when we step away from him to the glassy-eyed stare of Tiny Tim or some other pitiful soul encountered in Scrooge’s journey through past, present and future.
Those moments spent watching the Cratchits or enduring Ebenezer’s tedious nephew never quite ring true. In the classic Christmas Carol tale these should be tear-jerkers and, of course, from Scrooge they elicit a strong emotional reaction. But they never really connect with the audience, we’re too engrossed in the flashy animation surrounding Scrooge’s travels and those potentially resonate scenes end up being too rushed for us to latch on to whatever it is that’s happening in them. And of course every now and then a kid pops up on the screen and yep, Tiny Tim is unintentionally creepy. He limps around on his crutches shouting Christmas cheer as if he’s been spat from hell to bludgeon Santa Claus to death with a burning Yule log. Luckily, Tim’s scenes are blissfully brief.
Too I can’t help but wonder if this might be a movie better seen without the 3D element. It was originally conceived as a 3D movie and at times it works brilliantly, but in my showing at least, the picture often suffered from poor lighting. There are places where things become truly dark, as Scrooge stumbles his way through the night, when the image being reflected on the screen just wasn’t quite up to the task of fighting it’s way through the polarized filters on my 3D spectacles. That may, however, have been the fault of my projectionist and not the film itself. Let me know what you find when you see it.
Ultimately it’s Carrey that carries the day and while Zemeckis may not have created a newly classic take on an already classic story, he’s crafted one that’s well worth watching. The animation is lively, the effects creative, and A Christmas Carol’s fresh, creative take on the look (if not the substance) of Ebenezer’s ghostly instructors is sure to frighten and delight in equal parts. Charles Dickens’ classic story hasn’t been revitalized but it has been faithfully and capably recreated. For moviegoers seeking a comfortable Christmas fix in a holiday season steeped with the familiarity of never weary traditions, Disney’s take On A Christmas Carol is ready and able.