Robert Zemeckis has been a relatively unsung innovator in the use of computer-generated and -enhanced imagery in films, in movies such as “Death Becomes Her” and “Forrest Gump.”
Perhaps the problem is that his technological advances have been shackled to underwhelming films (i.e., “Death Becomes Her”). His film version of Chris van Allsburg’s “The Polar Express” was a leap forward in the blending of motion-capture technology with computer animation. But while it gets trotted out on an annual basis, it’s an unsatisfying film because the faces (particularly the eyes) of the characters look dead. The same was true of his “Beowulf.”
Zemeckis has made strides to overcome that problem with “Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” the hubristically titled new version of Charles Dickens’ classic story. There are still too many characters whose faces (particularly the eyes) look as lifeless as animatrons from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland – but Zemeckis manages to imbue the most crucial character, Ebenezer Scrooge, with eyes that are alive from start to finish.
(This is, by my count, the third version of Dickens’ story that Walt Disney Studios has put out. There was “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” in 1983, a hand-drawn version with Scrooge McDuck as, well, Scrooge. And “The Muppet Christmas Carol” in 1992 starred Michael Caine as old Ebenezer. The story, however, was always Dickens’, as it is now.)
Here’s what Zemeckis gets right:
His first stroke of genius was casting Jim Carrey, whose voice and physicality make Scrooge a character with depth to his crotchety meanness, including a heart hidden away, scarred by years of disuse. Carrey’s vocal performance is exceptional as Scrooge – and as the ghosts of Christmas past and present, which also resemble him.
Zemeckis’ script hews closely to Dickens’ original story. But in remaining faithful to the source, he has found ways to reimagine familiar scenes in ways that expand upon them and make them more fantastic, without losing track of Dickens.
Still, this is a movie – so rather than have a narrator set the scene, he adds a brief prologue of Scrooge at the undertaker the day his partner Jacob Marley dies. And in the Christmas future, Zemeckis inserts an unnecessary chase scene, with Scrooge scrambling to escape a hell-bound hearse, drawn by black horses with fiery eyes. Why? Because it’s a movie and movies need more action than Dickens’ story actually contains. It’s an extrapolation that doesn’t undermine the original, but an addition, nonetheless.
Dickens’ original has always been a marvel of economy and deceptive simplicity: a mean man who learns, over the course of one unexpected Christmas eve, that he has walled himself off from the world because of early hurts in his life – and resolves to change himself and reengage with that world.
And that’s the heart of what Zemeckis is doing here. Dickens’ story isn’t a comedy and, though it has funny moments, neither is this film – no matter how it’s being sold on TV. Which means that families assuming that this is a madcap Jim Carrey cartoon for tots will be sorely disappointed. Indeed, beside having a serious subtext, it also has moments that will scare younger viewers out of their seats.
As well-wrought as Scrooge is, Zemeckis seems to have punted on enlivening the faces of most of the other characters. As I watched, I thought of the eyes of the characters in “Up,” “9,” the Claymation “Mary and Max” and the upcoming stop-motion “Fantastic Mr. Fox” – all of which featured characters’ whose eyes were far livelier and more expressive than most of the characters in this film.
It’s almost as if Zemeckis figured the details would take care of themselves – and they didn’t. He has the whooshing camerawork, the photo-realistic depiction of Victorian London, the life-lighted eyes on Scrooge – but then he lost interest when it came to giving that same spark to virtually everyone else in the film.
As for this film’s 3D element, it’s rarely intrusive – but it’s also not crucial. I still see this as a gimmick, and an unnecessary one at that. I’m still waiting for the movie in which 3D is indispensable.
Thankfully, as they all are, this “Christmas Carol” is Scrooge-centric. It’s Scrooge’s story – and, thanks to an unusually layered performance by Jim Carrey, that mostly saves the day for this film.