Closer to Scrooge than ever before, but further from a developed story

    Robert Zemeckis presents a new take on the holiday classic, A Christmas Carol. Photo courtesy of ImageMovers Digital LLC.

    Grade: B
    Bottom Line:A Christmas Carol is full of 3D family fun and visual mastery, but falls short of offering any insights into the classic tale not already addressed by cinematic predecessors.

    If you grew up in the 90s, your family probably already has a favorite version of A Christmas Carol on VHS (and it is probably in ribbons following one or two decade’s-worth of viewing during the holiday season). Of over 20 versions made for both the big screen and TV, some notables include:

    • 1984’s made-for-TV version starring George C. Scott (Dr. Strangelove)
    • 1992’s A Muppet Christmas Carol starring Michael Caine (The Dark Knight)
    • 1997’s animated rendition with Tim Curry (Rocky Horror Picture Show), Whoopi Goldberg (Sister Act), and Ed Asner (Up)

    This list means two things: First, Disney has to work really hard to develop a piece that can be deemed groundbreaking in light of so many predecessors. Two, if you already have a favorite movie version of the holiday classic, A Christmas Carol would have to be really great to unseat a family tradition.

    But A Christmas Carol isn’t earth-shattering. In all actuality, it’s pretty safe. It briefly touches on issues that could feasibly expand Scrooge’s humanity — his abusive father, his spurned love-interest Belle — but glazes over these subplots just as soon as they are introduced. There is no opportunity to feel for Scrooge, no opportunity to cry for lost love, and, in turn, little reason to rejoice at his rebirth.

    The concept behind Jim Carrey voicing all the ghosts as well as Scrooge is intriguing — the idea being that the ghosts, part of an elaborate nightmare, are extensions of Scrooge’s personality — and Carrey is indeed an impressive voice actor. But no one actor can provide the character range that a handful of actors can, and by the time The Ghost of Christmas Present rolls around, you’ll be ready for a change of pace.

    All that being said, A Christmas Carol is visually stunning, with absurd attention paid to detail. For better or worse, 3D seems to drive the plot as much as it enhances it, acting as a stimulus for an exciting chase scene and making The (pretty damn frightening) Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come much more physical and forceful than has previously been seen.

    A Christmas Carol is not a bad movie, but Disney has set the bar pretty high for itself with 3D epic Up and crowd favorite WALL-E. It’s own A Muppet Christmas Carol is a holiday classic in its own right. As an entire package this movie just doesn’t do anything fantastic like these others.

    But expecting every movie to be a home run is unfair. This movie does justice to the story, and the 3D aspects are fun and engaging. If you don’t already have a favorite rendition of this timeless Christmas classic, there’s no reason this movie can’t fill the hole.

    Q&A with director Robert Zemeckis

    Robert Zemeckis (Beowulf, The Polar Express, Matchstick Men, Cast Away, Back to the Future) has been a writer, director and producer for nearly four decades of movies. Today his 3D adaptation of the classic A Christmas Carol opens in theaters. North by Northwestern joined in on a conference call with Zemeckis to discuss the movie.

    A Christmas Carol is a timeless story. How do you balance the dual problem of adhering to a traditional story but at the same time, creating a piece that is fresh, new and exciting?

    That was the challenge, and that was the reason that we did it. We just attacked that problem head-on and said “Okay, we are going to be extremely true to the underlying material, we’re not going to tinker with it too much,” although we do a little bit — we provide some action at the end to get Scrooge from place to place. The fact is that it is a timeless story is rooted in Scrooge’s character and his story of redemption. The other thing that I did which made everybody in the studio very nervous, but I don’t think it could have worked any other possible way, I have everyone speaking in the language of the time — the way Dickens wrote it — which I think is beautiful. And we basically kept the tone that Dickens wrote in the original piece.

    Is there any element of this Dickens story that you feel has been overlooked by past filmmakers that is highlighted in your version of the story?

    For some reason, past versions of the story have not delved into the idea that Dickens had great tension and great suspense in the story, the way he wrote it, and that seems to be watered down in all these other versions. That feeling of foreboding, that feeling of dread that you have in the first half of that story has been missing a lot. Scrooge basically has this wild nightmare — I really feel very strongly that you have to have the dark before you have the light. Another thing that’s amazing about Dickens that I hadn’t realized before, is how cinematic he wrote — he wrote very filmicly 100 years before the invention of movies — he writes in scenes.

    How do you see the 3D aspect of the film as aiding in the telling of the story?

    From an emotional standpoint, the 3D is a storytelling element just like the music is. You have the underlying intellectual material that is what Mr. Dickens wrote, and you embellish it with performance and you embellish it with music and you embellish it with color and now you embellish it with immersive 3D image. So what that does for the audience, it gives them another emotional handle on the story, it presents it in an emotional way. We immerse the audience in Dickensian London.


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