When starting out a review of A Christmas Carol, a compulsory beginning should likely read that Robert Zemeckis is incredibly talented and has made many great films that you will never be able to take away from him. Amongst this critics favorites are Back to the Future parts I and II, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump and Contact. Now that list stops before the turn of the century. In the latter part of this decade it seems he’s been on a crusade, as a director, to be at the forefront of motion-capture technology.
Three films into this phase and the animation it seems is still not ready for primetime. The animation is not the only thing that lets the film down but it is a starting point and an important one. The fluidity of motion is just not there in the dance scene and it seems like a jittery video game rendition. The appearance of the characters is inconsistent. Bob Cratchit looks simian through most of his first scene. The characters look good with pronounced highlights or in scenes with very high contrast. Otherwise the artifice of it falls into an odd no-man’s land between live action and animation that isn’t very appealing. The technology has come quite a ways from The Polar Express but it’s not yet in its most desirable state.
The story at times takes a backseat to the technology, otherwise, why would you represent the Ghost of Christmas Past as a flame? It seemed like an overly-contrived way to experiment with lighting techniques in the new technology. Also, the technology allows you to use fewer actors because once you have a reading of their face you can manipulate it in post and have them interpret numerous roles none of which look anything alike.
This, however, is a double-edged sword it can be incredibly liberating as an actor and the modern day equivalent of wearing a mask but it also means fewer actors were hired for this film to fill the roles. Another effect of the technology is that if you make a bad casting decision it could be amplified by many roles. Jim Carrey plays eight roles in this film and in two of them he was not a great fit. Unfortunately, those two were Ebenezer Scrooge, where he neither sounds all that British or all that curmudgeonly, and the Ghost of Christmas Present where he goes way over the top especially when he laughs which is almost all the time.
It seems like for every step forward this film took it took two back. For every new twist added cleverly because they could through the animation there was something extraneous like Scrooge being shot across the moonlit sky that just didn’t need to happen. I won’t even digress into his being shrunk and sliding down the rooftop except to mention it there.
All the charm, spirit and brilliance that does exist in this story can be directly attributed to Charles Dickens and is not really amplified in any way either by the production or the players, good as some of them were. It’s also a little disingenuous to see this branded as Disney’s a A Chrismas Carol in the opening credits when Disney in 1983 created a short called Mickey’s Christmas Carol that in 26 minutes managed to be ever so much more moving and effective than this film so much so that it was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Animated Short.
A case in point about the execution of this film: the effectiveness of the closing line of the tale is completely undercut because all of a sudden it was decided that it would be a good idea to have Cratchit talk to the audience and recite verbatim the closing paragraph and then have Tiny Tim say “God bless us everyone.” The film is not so long that you couldn’t have continued watching Scrooge going around doing his good deeds and allowing that to happen naturally and visually without the “cut to the chase” treatment. It kind of lets the wind out of the sails of an experience that wasn’t all that emotionally satisfying to begin with. Don’t change the nature of the tale and the tempo at the very end just because you don’t want to run anywhere near 100 minutes.
Those who are going to see the the story for the first time will likely enjoy it. I just stress that there are other better versions out there. The only serviceable thing this adaptation does is to reintroduce the tale and maybe it will be read by many for the first time- for as literature it is a masterpiece and this film is nowhere near close.