A Christmas Carol
Robert Zemeckis, director and script. Animation using “performance capture,” starring: Jim Carrey (Ebenezer Scrooge & The Three Ghosts of Christmas), Gary Oldman (Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit), Cary Elwes (Dick Wilkins, & Mad Fiddler), Colin Firth (Fred, Ebenezer’s only living relative), Bob Hoskins (Mr. Fezziwig & Old Joe), Robin Wright Penn (Fan Scrooge & Belle, his lover)
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been presented on screen many times before the new Robert Zemeckis-Jim Carrey film, which opens this Friday, but for once it’s fair to say, never like this. Every other version of the Victorian classic starred actors, most notably Alastair Sim, who was a truly memorable Ebenezer Scrooge, terrifying moviegoers in early scenes, until he won their hearts with his joyous transformation from miser to Christian stalwart.
Zemeckis’ new film does involve a plethora of stars and characters actors, utilizing the talents of Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Robin Wright Penn and Bob Hoskins—but they’re not actually there. The director has become cinema’s biggest advocate and creator of “performance capture,” a digital technique that reconfigures actor’s bodies into animated figures. What we see are graphically rendered versions of the actors performing Dickens’ great morality tale, in which the miserable capitalist Scrooge learns that charity and love are necessities in everyone’s life—and that society would die without those verities.
Performance capture is an odd but compelling technique. Audiences worldwide will either embrace or reject this virtuoso 3D animation feature depending upon their response to it. Here a figure isn’t just drawn, it’s rendered into an exaggerated version of the character’s specific form. Jim Carrey’s unctuous charm (and wouldn’t he make a great Micawber in Dickens’ Great Expectations), insouciant voice and expressive physicality are recreated by Zemeckis’ team into a visually arresting Scrooge. While the technique is brilliant, it’s off-putting emotionally. You have to be stunned by the style because the tale won’t instantly win you over.
Zemeckis and his great animation team gloriously recreate Victorian London and they understand how the story fits into the era. Scrooge, the ultimate miser, is played off his far more humane counterparts, Bob Cratchit, his employee, and Fred, his nephew. They recognize that the Dickens tale is renowned because it’s so extreme: Scrooge is absolutely devoid of life, simply a scoundrel making money, until the spirits of Christmas teach him the lesson that only good fellowship will get you into Heaven.
Since the story is a fantasy, Zemeckis and crew have fun with the tale, flying Scrooge hither and yon, through his increasingly dodgy past, devastatingly inhuman present and potentially disastrous future. Scrooge is thrown helter skelter from cosmic heights (which include a figure on bicycle in the skies ET reference) to the grisliest of lower depths.
One can’t imagine a more technically accomplished version of A Christmas Carol. But will audiences enjoy it? Little kids will be terrified: the horrors visited upon Scrooge are appalling,though deserved. Will the 11-15 year old demographic and their parents respond to Zemeckis? I suspect not. But if Zemeckis’ efforts are rewarded by commercial success that would certainly be a reasonable—perhaps Christian—response.