Disney's A Christmas Carol
- Directed and written by Robert Zemeckis
- Starring Jim Carrey
- Classification: PG
Confined in our personality, our nature, our genetic prison, we struggle to change even as everything around us, everything larger than us, changes with lightning speed. Often, then, we feel like the only fixtures in a world of flux. Happily, life's recipe for frustration can be fiction's hearty meal, and no one prepared it better than Charles Dickens. The classic make-over tale, A Christmas Carol says "Yes we can" to the possibility of personal transformation. Easily forgotten, though, is what fuels the change: Crooked old Scrooge is scared straight, terrified into niceness. There's a lot of dark magic in this Dickensian Yuletide.
To his credit, director Robert Zemeckis doesn't flinch from that darkness and hews faithfully to the book. Too faithfully, some might think. Kiddies beware, because the Disney has largely been excised from this Disney flick. Instead, fittingly, Zemeckis applies to a story about change our most powerful instrument of change - technology itself. As in two of his earlier films, the underrated The Polar Express and the underwhelming Beowulf , he uses the "performance capture" technique here, where the visuals lie somewhere between animation and live-action. That makes for a happy marriage with Dickens, a writer famous for creating flat characters who themselves fall somewhere between fantastic and real, exaggerated cartoons one minute and entirely credible the next.
This time, though, Zemeckis has another technical trick up his sleeve - 3-D - and for once the gimmick succeeds. Yes, even the math works out, a dimension for each Christmas ghost.
The proof comes as early as the opening scene. A gorgeous aerial shot takes us giddily over the architecture and the alleyways of Victorian London, with the snow seeming to fall right into our goggled eyes. Suddenly, there's a plunge down and into the cold of a cramped office, where in lieu of snowflakes we get a face-full of Scrooge - his sharp nose and pointed chin are twin daggers, his jagged teeth complete the arsenal. Typically, directors try to harness 3-D for expansive effects; in these ingenious frames, however, Zemeckis deploys it claustrophobically to imprison the audience. Like poor Bob Cratchit, we're hemmed in by humbug and trapped in a cage of meanness, bound on all sides by a miser's lethal protuberances.
Then Jim Carrey clangs shut the door. The performance captured is his, and Carrey never allows the pre-transfigured Scrooge to slip into safe caricature. The guy isn't comically nasty; he's truly, madly, deeply mean. Gary Oldman does similar work as Marley's chained ghost, wrapping him up in the very human torment of regret. Marley, of course, is Dickens's device for introducing another transformation act, whereupon the Christmas spirit morphs into Christmas spirits, a trio of spectres taking Scrooge on his frightful trip through the Past, Present and Future. Drawing on his rubber body and elastic tonsils, Carrey plays all three - the first an ethereal candle, the next a robust Eric the Red, the last, simply and ominously, a palpable shadow.
On the ensuing journey, the bulk of the film, Zemeckis borrows from other classics too. From Spielberg's E.T. , when, rocketing up into the night sky, the angular Scrooge is silhouetted against a full moon. And from Swift's Gulliver's Travels , when, before getting nice, Scrooge gets small, shrunk to Lilliputian proportions as his narrow future catches up with him. Yet these frames, essentially an extended chase scene, are a bit of a muddle, the one occasion when Zemeckis seems at cross-purposes with himself and the book, labouring to brighten its darker grain.
But the correction is quick and pointed, especially in an unnerving sequence that sees those allegorical twins, the children of Ignorance and Want, "crying like a fire in the sun," their wails punctuated by the steady tolling of a bell, then the quiet ticking of a clock - Dickens's socially conscious warning that today's neglected prey will become tomorrow's hungry predators. Here, the sound is perfectly wedded to the sense. In fact, throughout, the cast members - including Colin Firth, Robin Wright Penn, Bob Hoskins - voice their roles well. But the silence too is memorable, particularly the silence of that waiting grave. After all, it's the prospect of an unmourned death that frightens the life into Scrooge - not many Christmas yarns have their climax in a coffin.
His redemption is just the brief dénouement, although most adaptations stretch out the reborn Scrooge and crank up the sentimental volume. Not here. Zemeckis, like Dickens, keeps it short, knowing that too much turkey can leave us cranky, and too much time, in fiction no less than fact, can erode our faith in the "Change We Can Believe In."