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Non-Review Review: A Christmas Carol (2009)

I’m yet to be sold on the Robert Zemeckis school of “motion capture.” Don’t worry, I don’t hold a prejudice. I’m just waiting to be convinced, and I worry that Zemeckis – for all his championing of the technology – might not be the one to do it. For, as impressive as the technical merits of his technique might be, I think that Zemeckis has yet to find a story that truly needs to be told in that format, or at least a story that resonates in that format. Much as Pixar have somewhat validated computer-generated animation (a school of filmmaking that met with a ridiculous amount of cynicism in its early years), I think the key to proving the worth of this sort of approach lies in finding a story that connects with audiences, while demonstrating the strengths of the tool being used to tell it.

While it’s an enjoyable enough holiday film, A Christmas Carol simply is not that film.

Totally Scrooged...

It’s a shame, because a lot of the essential ingredients are there. Jim Carrey is an actor who uses his entire body as an organ of his craft, bending and stretching and writhing with the best of them – watching Carrey at his best, it seems he has mastered his body like a world-class musician might master an instrument. His actions are exaggerated. He’s a performer who doesn’t necessary act through his eyes, but through his entire body language. Putting Jim Carrey in an animated film is arguably a waste of his skills, and so this sort of performance capture seems perfectly suited.

And, to be honest, it is perfectly suited to him. Jim Carrey is one of the film’s two greatest strengths. You can almost feel the energy radiating through the screen, and you get the sense that very little has been lost in translating his style from live-action to computer-generated. Playing the lead character and each of the three ghosts, Carry is tasked with carrying the film. To a large extent, he succeeds, and he injects quite a bit of life into this movie. Even ignoring the physical aspect, I quite liked the surreal accents he opted to give to the first of the two ghosts, adopting regional English mannerisms.

The ghost's clear...

However, there’s also a sense of what is lost through this technology when you look at the other cast members involved. There’s a reason that Hollywood has elected Andy Serkis as their go-to actor for these sorts of computer-animated characters, it’s because he has a skill set that suits that sort of performance – the logical subtext being that some actors lack those particular attributes. Carrey is supported by Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Bob Hoskins. Firth puts up a decent showing, but I feel like the performances from Hoskins and Oldman are somehow “incomplete.”

And I think there’s a very clear reason for this. In contrast to Carrey, these are actors who typically underplay their roles, and communicate with the slightest, barely-perceptable movements, gestures and glances. As wonderful as this technology might be, you can’t replicate Gary Oldman’s eyes. Imagine, for example, how difficult it would be to bring a computer-generated George Smiley to life, even replicating the actor’s exact movements. This isn’t a criticism of the technology, but one that acknowledges the kinds of limitations that exist – just as Pixar’s wonderful design would be wasted on an ultra-realistic setting, this sort of technology is best used on extroverted performers.

Getting Carrey-ed away...

So the film doesn’t really succeed as the perfect example of everything this technology is capable of – if only because it never seems to play solely to the strengths of this particular approach. However, the film does a fairly decent job of offering us up yet another version of A Christmas Carol. To be entirely honest, everybody has their favourite iteration of the tale, which has been recycled and reworked for generation upon generation. My own preferred versions would be The Muppet Christmas Carol and Scrooged. However, Zemeckis’ version does have one very important factor in its favour, distinguishing it from a great many of its competitors: it’s remarkably faithful to Dickens’ novel, lifting entire chunks of dialogue.

Normally, fidelity isn’t an issue. A movie should really be judged on its own merits and whether it did what it needed to in order to present the best possible version of the tale. However, after years of everybody trying to put their own spin on the tale, the almost-original hook of this version is a strange faithfulness – a desire to play the story remarkably straight, with a minimum of bells and whistles. There’s no change of time period, no pop culture references, no puppets – everything is remarkably true to Dickens’ vision, and I respect that. It helps this take stand out as relatively unique in the pantheon of recent adaptations.

Lighten up...

On the other hand, I do wonder if Zemeckis’ version of the tale provides all the excitement and engagement that families expect from a Christmas film. After all, books and films are different media, and audiences go in expecting different things. While the entire sequence with the third ghost cackles with energy, the rest of the movie seems relatively sedate – there’s really very little done with the special effects that you couldn’t see done with live action, and relatively little that injects a sense of excitement into a story most kids are already overly familiar with.

Still, it’s not a bad film. I enjoyed a bit of it, and Carrey is really an actor suited towards this style of movie-making. However, it doesn’t really feel like it justifies the technique that Zemeckis is using, at least not in a way that will win audiences over – and the irony is that the weight on Zemeckis only increases with each of his releases, as audiences grow increasingly skeptical. It’s a perfectly fine movie, but it really feels like it should be so much more…

2 Responses

  1. I recently saw this film for the first time and quite enjoyed it. Robert Zemeckis is one of my favorite filmmakers, but I’ve been annoyed by the fact that he’s been putting his energies into the mo-cap films rather than live action (which will be remedied with the upcoming “Flight”). I too was impressed by this version being rather faithful to the source material, though I don’t think Charles Dickens wrote about Scrooge riding on a rocket.

  2. I liked this quite a bit as well. It looking eerily reminiscent to “Polar Express,” I was leery of seeing it in theaters but was surprised – as you were, Jamie – to find it close to the Dickens fantasy classic.

    As well as the motion capture worked I like the feel of an animator’s touch better. On top of that, both this picture and Z-meck’s “Beowulf” would have worked just as well as live-action with effects. Mostly, the captured characters look human enough that the CG merely serves as a distraction rather than an enhancement.

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