Just as Oliver Twist did with the process of growing through childhood, no other literary work has shaped and defined perceptions on the joy and wonder of true Christmas spirit than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. That Dickens’ stories have prevailed in relevance through the generations is because, like Jane Austen, his stories are simple and even boarder on formulaic. No matter how complex the mechanics became, the stories always nurtured a sense of comfort and familiarity. They welcomed the reader in to the world they described.
However, what has made his stories timeless; the reason why they remain a constant point of discovery for one generation after the next is because Dickens nary put one word on page that was not written from a place of joy and love.
It thus seems logical for Robert Zemeckis to take up the challenge of adapting Dickens with the same motion-capture photorealistic animation technique that he used to create, not just one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made, but one of the greatest family films period, in the Polar Express.
Motion Capture Animation
Not surprisingly then, the film is a spectacle of beautiful, crisp, clear, lights and colours, created through flawless animation. The brilliance of this animation technique is that it creates characters who don’t quite look like regular human beings, but rather like animated human caricatures with exaggerated noses, postures, waistlines, etc.
The characters therefore, by remaining just one step shy of being actually lifelike, lend a measure of physical credibility into the film’s overall fantasy universe, while never sacrificing the fantastical element in the translation. The animation therefore does not lose it’s specificity as is usually the problem that plagues most productions that combine live action with computer generated effects: animation is a tool for creating new, physically impossible universes, not as a stand in for the one we have. In effect, A Christmas Carol presents a world as real as any fake one could be.
The problem then is that the film has the standards of history against itself. Where the Polar Express made possible a world that has never been explored before, A Christmas Carol comes with the baggage its reputation. Many film adaptations (some of them classic) already exist of the story, plus a slew of television reenactments and two dimensional animations, and one built primarily with Muppets and so forth.
The effect of Zemeckis’ animated technique is then a negative one: it’s already known the story is possible amidst a real world of living actors without the stylistic crutch of advanced special effects. That is, after all, the reasons outlined for Dickens’ continued reverence, no?
The animation is thus mere frosting on the literary cake: a different way of looking at a same material of grumpy old Scrooge (Jim Carrey) being visited on Christmas Eve by three spirits who, by the end of the journey, instill upon him the value of Christmas spirit.
However, Zemeckis offers the story no fresh view except through that of the animated lens (although he admirably keeps the story far closer to Dickens’ original language than any other adaptation that comes to mind), and therefore the film feels more like a spectacle than a classic narrative in a state rebirth.
What’s shocking about that, and maybe this is strictly subjective, is how much time and care Zemeckis put into, not only creating, but fleshing out strong characters with recognizable human emotions from a short work of children’s fiction with the Polar Express to litter within the spectacle of that film to reducing a fully fledged story to its most basic filmic component in this one: that being the visual.
In English, Zemeckis brilliantly stages high speed flights above London, and many other daring and original chases through streets and homes, but the story itself feels emotionally empty as it’s most moving elements (the death of Scrooge’s sister and Tiny Tim, the loss of his one true love) feel rushed in order to get on with the magnificent light show. Even Scrooge’s transformation in the final act of the story feels more in place because that’s how it is accepted the story must end instead of the big joyous payoff such a conclusion should provide.
Motion Capture Animation
Make no mistake though: A Christmas Carol is a dazzler. It’s still a work of stunning beauty and originality and, like the Polar Express, it isn’t afraid of its subject matter and doesn’t undermine audiences by dulling it around the edges. There are moments of the film that are, as they should be, dark and haunting (maybe too much for all family audiences), while others are bright, joyful, luminous even.
The appearances of the ghosts, the Ghost of Christmas Past especially, are truly original and there is much admiration in the way Zemeckis approaches his material as a real filmmaker and not just an animator.
Nowhere else in animation can one find such attention to camera angles, lighting, sound, editing, etc. than in Zemeckis’ films (look at the truly brilliant way Zemeckis has for the Ghost of Christmas Present to show Scrooge his visions). In that sense, animation to Zemeckis is not simply about making cartoons, but is a stylistic device used to achieve the kind of filmmaking that he wouldn’t be able in the physical world.
And that’s the verdict. A Christmas Carol works as a brilliant visual feast for the imagination while never really trying to do more than an adequate job at achieving the same kind of emotional impact that the Polar Express or other versions of the same material had.
However, it’s a film that demands to be seen for no better reason than as justification that the cinema is still capable of producing new and exciting artistic visions through new and exciting artistic mediums, especially for the whole family. Sometimes that’s all one needs.