The main problem with Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (besides the fact you actually have to read the damn thing) is that there just aren’t enough possibilities for video game spin-offs. Well, Walt Disney Pictures and director Robert Zemeckis have solved that little problem (and a few others as well) with their high-tech cinematic “upgrade.” Now it’s got chase scenes, explosions, elaborate stunts, a radical snowboarding scene—all prime fodder for a Nintendo DS game. (No, I’m not joking. It was released on Nov. 3.)
Also lacking in Dickens’ classic of English literature: 3-D, computer-generated, motion-capture graphics. Not any more. Now the tale about the moral redemption of an elderly, mid-19th century miser on Christmas Eve looks more like The Matrix than ever before. Thank god for progress, eh?
Of course, for those of you out there who thought Charles Dickens’ original was just fine as it was, Disney’s razzle-dazzle-filled version may come as something of a disappointment.
Zemeckis, who gave us the creepy digital simulacra of The Polar Express, ups the ante here, delivering one of the most terrifying holiday films ever made. Seriously, Santa’s Slay, Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night have got nothing on this holiday chiller. Computers can do impressive things these days. The weave on the rugs in Scrooge’s house, the depth of the wrinkles on our protagonist’s face and the velocity of snowflakes on the streets of London are rendered in glorious detail. But the people—the mutated, paralytic-faced ghouls—that inhabit this film are the stuff of nightmares. These aren’t cartoonishly stylized digital characters as in Pixar’s UP. These are computerized homunculi masquerading as “realistic” humans. Those raised on PlayStation 3 cutscenes might adjust well enough, but those who are used to actual human beings in their movies are apt to find themselves uncomfortable from start to finish.
Big-ticket star Jim Carrey dominates the film, stepping into a role that’s been inhabited by everyone from Alastair Sim to that Urkel kid on “Family Matters.” He voices (and provides the motion-capture “acting” for) Scrooge as well as his three ghostly visitors. Carrey isn’t exactly known for his subtle character work. Unable to deliver wacky, Ace Ventura-style faces, Carrey tries on several different U.K. accents some vocal coach taught him (Irish, Yorkshire, proper “Queen’s English”). Gary Oldman, Cary Elwes, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins and Robin Wright Penn are there as well, voicing multiple characters and lending their faces to the 1850 equivalent of Old Navy’s “Modelquins.”
Plotwise and dialoguewise, the film is more or less faithful to Dickens’ original. It’s been interpreted in roughly 8 bazillion movies, cartoons and TV sitcom episodes, so it’s not like you can expect any surprises in that department: Scrooge pooh-poohs Christmas and is visited by a selection of ghosts who teach him that grumpy old misers die alone. With each spectral visit, however, we are treated to a massive action sequence. The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on a zooming flight over snowy London that would make Superman jealous. The Ghost of Christmas Present has got some sort of magical flying party room with an invisible floor that gives filmmakers another excuse to send cameras soaring over rooftops. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes a slightly different tack, shrinking Scrooge down to mouse-size (I have no idea why) and then chasing him through London’s streets on a hell-fired, horse-drawn hearse. Seriously, is somebody planning on doing a Christmas Carol-themed stunt show at Disney World?
While most filmmakers generally look at A Christmas Carol as a sentimental holiday tale, Disney’s A Christmas Carol views it as the ghost story it sort of always was. Things start out frighteningly enough with Jacob Marley floating through Scrooge’s door, dragging his chains. At one point during their conversation, Marley screams at Scrooge, fracturing his jaw, splitting his cheeks wide open and sending his tongue lolling horribly onto his chest. For the rest of the conversation, Marley is obliged to “speak” by flapping his gaping jaw with one hand. It’s a gag that might have been appropriate for the recent splatstick comedy Zombieland, but here it’s a scene guaranteed to induce nightmares in underage viewers. And it’s not the only one.
For such a classic holiday fable, Disney’s A Christmas Carol is surprisingly lacking in joy, humor and just general good cheer. There are the occasional pratfalls and head bonks to make the kiddies chuckle (what, no fart noises?). Aside from that, though, this is a grim, grisly, entirely somber affair. As a demonstration reel for the wonders of modern-day motion capture technology, Disney’s A Christmas Carol is impressive. You’ve got the option of seeing it theatrically in regular old 2-D or (for a couple extra bucks) leap-off-the-screen 3-D. Unlike many recent 3-D cartoons (Coraline, UP, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs), if you aren’t paying extra to see this in 3-D, there’s no reason to watch it. Sorry to take the easy way out here, but Bah, humbug to this gimmicky upgrade.