Friday, November 6, 2009

Review: "A Christmas Carol"

"A Christmas Carol" is a technological marvel, an animated film that is absolutely breathtaking in its attention to detail, and in the depth and beauty of its images. Unfortunately, it also has little reason for existing beyond these technical aspects.

Do audiences really need an umpteenth cinematic version of Charles Dickens' classic story? This is, after all, a franchise that has been translated dozens of times on film and television, including multiple animated editions.

Heck, the Muppets, Mickey Mouse, Sesame Street, Flintstones, Mr. Magoo and even Barbie have tackled Dickens' novella.

Robert Zemeckis, the master filmmaker behind "Forrest Gump" and "Back to the Future," adds nothing beyond fancy flourishes to the morality tale about a miser who learns the value of life, and thereby the true meaning of Christmas.

A few years ago, Zemeckis famously swore off live-action films to concentrate on photo-realistic computer-generated animation. His first two efforts, "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf," were well-intentioned and often mesmerizing, but also contained bouts of silliness (think Angelina Jolie with a tail).

"Christmas Carol" doubles down on the silly, with the hyper Jim Carrey providing the voices (and motions) of Ebenezer Scrooge and all the ghosts.

And Zemeckis adds a heavy dollop of action sequences designed to make the movie more commercially viable to audiences with children.

It's very easy to say Charles Dickens might have dreamed up scenes where Ebenezer Scrooge is shot halfway to the moon on a rocket, or shrunk down to the size of a mouse and chased by a team of hellfire steeds, if only he had been alive during a time when such depictions were possible. It's also a cop-out.

"Scrooged" from 1988 already ably translated "Carol" to a modern setting, and used special effects to liven up the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Zemeckis retains the grubby antique 19th-century setting but uses cutting-edge animation and 3-D technology to achieve it.

The result is stale but annoyingly flashy, like musty architecture with ill-placed modern gilding.

It's also odd that Zemeckis retained a lot of the 1843-era stilted English, such as Scrooge's pronouncement upon seeing his childhood home, "I was bred here."

Now, to the ghosts. Conceptually, they're 1-for-3.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is depicted as a giant, bearded, laughing man, a Dionysian figure (who closely resembles the book's original drawing). The scene where the ghost ages and meets his demise -- since he lives in the present, his lifespan lasts only a day -- is both thrilling and creepy. (Although his strange pronouncement about men of the cloth left the audience scratching its collective head.)

The Ghost of Christmas Past, though, is a chirpy-voiced floating ball of flame. In my mind, I instantly dubbed, and dismissed, him as "Match-head." Ghost of Christmas Future is merely an inky wraith seen only in the shadows.

The supporting performances are a nice mix -- I particularly liked Gary Oldman as Scrooge's long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit, whom he gives a shy sort of grace. (Oldman also plays Jacob Marley and Tiny Tim.)

In the end, I'm not really sure who this new version of "A Christmas Carol" is for. Great-looking but uninspired, it's a shiny new toy that can only do old tricks.

2.5 stars

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