Film Review: A Christmas Carol

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Nick Deigman on 4 Nov 2009

Last night saw the breaking of a few festive world records in a decidedly Dickensian Leicester Square. Firstly, opera singer Andrea Bocelli lead the largest Christmas Carol ‘sing-along’ from the Square, as revellers across London joined in after the official ‘turning on’ of the Christmas lights. Then Disney, in collaboration with Sky Movies HD, hosted the largest ever ‘3D premiere’ for their new film ‘A Christmas Carol’. Anyone who worries that Christmas has sold its soul should have headed to central London last night: Disney have bought the entire centre’s Christmas lights, so Jim Carey’s performance-captured face will be staring down at us from all over the shopping district until the dawn of 2010.

But in Disney’s defence – and not wanting to cry ‘humbug’ too loud on this joyous occasion – the premiere was a success and certainly helped to kick off 2009’s Christmas season. Sky presenters Alex Zane and Konnie Huq buzzed around the red carpet spreading Christmas joy as showers of fake snow wafted across the Square, and gaggles of rosy-faced carol singers cheered the waiting crowds. Even Jim Carrey did his festive best, breaking the world record for the bushiest, most friendly-looking beard ever sported by a Hollywood A-lister at a European Premiere.

As well as being the biggest 3D premiere to date, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is an especially important 3D film because it is the first of its kind to also adopt Robert Zemeckis’ beloved ‘performance-capture’ technology (as seen in Polar Express, Beowolf, etc).

From the opening shots of the film it is clear that Zemeckis is going to take every opportunity to show off his new toy, ‘3D performance-capture’. After a stuttering start – where we are supposed to be dumbfounded by the sheer height of a candle stick and the awesome length of Scrooge’s fingers – the camera rises up over Dickensian London and swoops across the city in a brilliant and truly exhilarating roller-coaster ride. Disney 3D has now truly arrived.

It is also clear from the opening moments, as Scrooge (Carrey) steals the pennies from the eyes of his dead business partner Jacob Marley, that this film is not heading down the Jim Henson route. As Scrooge traipses back to his lonely townhouse on Christmas eve, he is confronted by Marley’ ghost, who warns him that he is destined to an eternity of torment if he doesn’t change his ways while he is still alive. Performance-capture was invented for moments like this. Marley is brutally realistic and yet still fantastic and cartoon-like enough to prevent children and those of a timid disposition from screaming down the aisles away from the screen. It is genuinely unsettling, and I am sure a few parents will have a bone to pick with the censors, but Zemeckis, Carrey, and Oldman can always be trusted to add just enough crazed humour, funny facial expressions, and comic timing to stop the tone sliding too far towards horror.

The performance-capture also enables the creation of some interesting ‘ghosts’. The ghost of Christmas past and present are very different creatures (the former being a breathy, timid torch, the latter being a robust Bacchus in flowing robes) but they both bear an unsettling resemblance to Scrooge (and Carrey voiced all the ghosts). Zemeckis therefore gets closer to Dickens novel than most previous adaptations by hinting at the subconscious nature of the visions: after each escapade Scrooge finds himself falling out of bed, and it is more transparent than ever before that the old man is actually just suffering from guilty hallucinations.

Unfortunately, the 3D does not work as fluidly as the performance-capture; and apart from that opening section it just feels cumbersome and unnecessary. Occasionally the filmmakers feel the need to force the extra dimension upon us by sticking a pointless inanimate object (a door knob or somebody’s ear) in the immediate foreground so that the main action seems further away. This is jarring, annoying, and will draw any film fan out of the story because it is so unnatural and completely against the basic rules of filmic language.

This annoying ‘look at our 3D technology’ element reaches it’s zenith in a completely inexcusable, ten minute chase through the streets of London during which Scrooge is miniaturised and forced to escape from equine demons. For periods of this chase I was sure Zemeckis had literally been lifted footage out of ‘Ice Age’ and coloured it in differently. It is insincere and childish, and after all the hard work Pixar have done creating meaningful films that can be universally enjoyed, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is only a ‘film for all ages’ because it has some things adults might like (that children most likely wont) and vice versa.

Jim Carrey’s performance is perfectly acceptable, but it is only his good judgement and taste in projects that is stopping him falling down the ‘Mike Myers’ wormhole. In projects like this he just does what he does, and while we cannot fault him for creating yet another entertaining, absorbing, and energetic creation, there is nothing fresh or unique to really commend it either.

Bob Hoskins… isn’t in the film; and any critic who claims his role added “nostalgia, warmth, and spirit” to the project is lying because they like Bob Hoskins too much. The only other actor who registers in this film (but has been cut out of the publicity, presumably because he isn’t as cheerful looking as Hoskins and Firth) is Gary Oldman. In his role of Bob Cratchit, Scrooges humble clerk, he helps to give the film a sense of honesty and calm; and in his haunting role as Jacob Marley he provides the most viscerally and realistically terrifying moments of the film.

In the spirit of corporate Christmas, I couldn’t possibly end this review without a word from my sponsors, Sky Movies HD, whose involvement in last night’s event was pivotal. Christmas is the only time of year when a middle-aged accountant from Luton will turn to his family and say, “lets watch ‘Mary Poppins’… as a family!” So what better time of year to signup to Sky and enjoy some Christmas classics in the company of your loved ones.

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