How does one improve a beloved classic like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? If you’re director Robert Zemeckis (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) the answer is obvious: toss in chase scenes and motion-capture special effects.
The problem is, whenever Zemeckis gets crazy with the razzle-dazzle, the film crashes to a halt.
Robert Zemecks Directs A Christmas Carol, Starring Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Bob Hoskins
Do we really need to hear this tale again? The story of how Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) learns the value of Christmas via 3 ghosts (also Carrey) has been adapted for film and TV an estimated 60 times, and “inspired” countless other Christmas specials.
That aside, what does Zemeckis bring to the party? Firstly, a PG rating: there are several scary sequences, especially when Scrooge is confronting his former partner Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman). Second, the controversial motion-capture style that Zemeckis has been championing for films like The Polar Express and Beowulf. To be fair, he has refined his technique: the humans almost look like they can (barely) emote this time, instead of looking like ambulatory mannequins.
The backgrounds are stellar; you have to remind yourself several times that this is an animated film. This begs the question of why go motion-capture in the first place: other than saving money on actors (Carrey essays 4 roles in the film, Oldman does 3, Daryl Sabara handles 5 and Ryan Ochoa voices 6), the character designs aren’t strong enough to justify the process. This film could have easily been rendered in live-action plus CGI, and the actors’ performances would have been stronger for it.
Jim Carrey Delivers Compelling Performances
Despite the animation limitations, Carrey does his best as Scrooge and the 3 ghosts: he reins in his worst tendencies and delivers compelling performances. He can’t top Alistair Sim, whose 1951 portrayal still stands as the best Scrooge, but he’s no Sid James either. (A good thing).
Oldman also does sterling work as Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and Jacob Marley. Oldman’s always been an excellent actor, but one of his most underrated talents is the way other actors tend to up their game a little more around him. That’s very much in evidence here.
Unfortunately, Zemeckis doesn’t think Dickens’ deathless prose is sufficient to hold the viewer’s attention, despite the fact that it’s successfully done so since 1843. To “improve” A Christmas Carol for 21st Century audiences, Zemeckis fires Scrooge around the screen like a pinball whenever possible. The old miser is shot into the air, hurled down stairs, tied up in knots, and chased through London by a spectral coach in a sequence that seems to go on forever.
Does all this flash contribute anything to the story? Not really: they’re just there to elicit oohs and ahhs instead of moving the film forward. Nearly all of them could have easily been chopped, and the flick would’ve been stronger for it.
The Final Analysis
A Christmas Carol feels like it was put together by a marketing committee: take a beloved classic (read; proven hit), throw in some fancy special effects and chase scenes and you have instant bank.
Cynicism aside, if Zemeckis had gone with a straighter reading of Dickens’ book, he might have ended up with a better film. However, the flashy bits feel tacked on, and don’t advance the plot. Despite the improved mo-cap and impressive performances from the leads, Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol still adds up to less than the sum of its parts.