This story is well-enough known that I will indulge in some spoilers, mostly because some elements of this movie are beautiful and innovative, and some just plain did not belong. The aggregate score makes it a rental, because the highs were very high, but the lows very low. First of all, all performance-capture technicians should be so lucky as to have a face such as Jim Carrey’s to use for source movement. Like Andy Serkis before him, Carrey has fine control of his expressions, and his entire physical instrument. As a result, the character of Scrooge is a wonder to behold. You can almost feel the veins pounding with ire behind his dessicated skin. Carrey plays him with real heart, real bile, real fear.
That said, why would you then skimp on every other character — even the other ones played by Carrey? Sure, Scrooge is the reason we’re here, but you spoil us with a rich, nearly photo-realistic performance and then bust out faces like the kid in the first Toy Story movie (admittedly with better texture mapping)? The uncanny valley looks all the deeper when you’ve got the mountain in the same shot. Also: stop making the characters look like their voice actors. Sure, it helps identify their player, but that’s what credits are for. When you give us Colin Firth’s voice coming out of a creepy Colin Firth waxwork, it’s even more jarring than say, Cary Elwes’ voice coming out of a portly stranger. OK, huzzah for the casting reunions from Princess Bride and Liar Liar. Give everyone with a substantial speaking part a new face and put a ton of dots on them too, or don’t do it at all. Poor Gary Oldman could really have worked Bob Cratchit to the maximum.
London is a beautiful place to fly a camera through when rendered with such loving Dickensian detail — people and streets, chamberpots and shops, sweeps and urchins. I imagine in 3-D it would be even more swooping and gorgeous. But then the creepy robots sing their stiff-mouthed carols — even with adorable character design they just disturb next to Scrooge’s twitching nasolabial folds.
The reason to remake this story in CG is to explore storytelling techniques that you couldn’t do as well or easily with live-action, right? Not just to jump on the 3D bandwagon. Right? Not just to find ways to poke things into the faces of the kids in the audience and go “Wooo Dickens is COOOOL!” Right? Of course I expect some expansion from the relatively intimate story, but some of these elaborate showcases felt like someone wished he made a different movie and decided just to keep the idea. I am glad I didn’t see it in 3-D because the camera poking was pretty egregious at times.
This Christmas Carol also doesn’t seem to know its audience. Between goofy chase scenes and glossing over some of the better poetry of the novel, and genuinely scary, profound moments of self-discovery on the part of Scrooge, I’d say they may also not have read the book. I would never take a child to see this — the sections with Jacob Marley and the spirit of Christmas Yet To Come are quite scary and effectively done. Future was portrayed as only a silent shadow, its bony hand sliding along reality to point the way for Scrooge…unless it pokes, black and glistening and fakey, into the 3-D realm, ruining the beautiful and haunting effect. After the Ringwraiths and Dementors and depictions of Death over a century of cinema, I was so pleased to see something different for Christmas Yet To Come…and then frustrated. Did I mention the ridiculous, gratuitous chase scene? Chase. Scene. Future does not chase you and shrink you and — Zemeckis!!!!!
The Ghost of Christmas Past was handled like a human candle, a creative and different interpretation of happier times and the ephemerality of memory. He and Christmas Present are also played by Jim Carrey (Future may have been as well, but there was no face to animate), and Past had an inexplicable Irish accent and a hissing whisper, the blame for both of which I can only lay on director Robert Zemeckis’ shoulders. It was such a lovely idea of a candle and then ruined.
And then we come to Christmas Present. As we know, Present is the boisterous, merry love-of-life spirit of jolly, earthy goodness and generosity. They got the general look of him right (oddly including the petulant forehead wrinkle that Carrey fans will recognize as his impish look, not his expansive humanity-loving look), but the booming warm laugh is instead incredibly horrible and fake and creepy. If this was meant to be a Scrooged-type cynical commentary on how artificial our seasonal bursts of kindness are before we slide back into 11 months of selfishness, well, it didn’t work. It looked bush league. His laugh was unsettling and creepy and not at all merry, and it ruined everything else: the cornucopia of generosity, the hale spirit astride the wonders of the world, and the truly lovely way he showed Scrooge his part of the spirits’ presentation. This scene would have been the most effective in 3-D, but if I had seen that petulant wrinkle shake out those kidnapper-van laughs in 3-D, I might have fled the building. Present repelled me right when he should have been washing us in the wassail of what Scrooge is missing. Again, this ancillary character wasn’t given full animation of his face, despite being based on rubberface Carrey.
I wish I could cut a montage of the sobering and well-thought-out segue from Present to Future, the swooping flights through London and Scrooge’s face. But I cannot. Wait to watch it at home with some warmth to ward off the chill.
MPAA Rating PG
Release date 11/6.09
Time in minutes 96
Director Robert Zemeckis
Studio Walt Disney Pictures