Originally published in 1843, Charles Dickens’ “ A Christmas Carol” is believed to be one of the greatest Christmas stories ever told. And I have to agree. Next to “Oliver Twist”, “A Christmas Carol” is my favorite Charles Dickens novel. I still remember on reading it back in my elementary school days, how I was drawn to the darkness and grit of story and the characters, and how from the darkness sprang a beautiful hopeful light and joy. And it seems that I am not the only one touched by the tale as over the years there have been countless incarnations of Dickens’ masterful work, from children’s book adaptations to knock off stories to cartoons to animated films to no less than 70 theatrical films and made for tv movies with everyone from Mickey Mouse to Vanessa Williams and Mister Magoo, Reginald Owen, Alastair Sim, a 1910 Marc McDermott, Tim Curry and Bill Murray, all being visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Now Disney enters the fray, yet again (you may recall the adorable “Mickey’s A Christmas Carol) and together with Robert Zemeckis, brings us one of the most authentic adaptations to the Dickens’ classic that I have ever seen - DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Re-envisioned for the 21st Century, Zemeckis retains the Old English mastery of Dickens’ story, complete with characters, verbiage and tone, tosses in the holiday beauty and quaintness of a snow covered Victorian England but then adds a fantastical thrill -ride thanks to the combination of motion capture and 3D animation.
Ebenezer Scrooge is the antithesis of the spirit of Christmas. Miserly and miserable, despite the best efforts of those around him, particularly his nephew Fred and dedicated employee, Bob Cratchit, Mr. Scrooge is determined to “bah, humbug” the season and Christmas itself yet once again. Seeing this miserable excuse of a man, one finds it hard to believe that there was a time that Ebenezer Scrooge was happy and carefree and even in love. But, tis true – even Scrooge found love at one time. There was a time when he was young and alive, filled with a zeal and zest for life. The world was his oyster and he intended to taste as much of it as he could. But along the way, something happened to him. Loss and greed and Jacob Marley.
In their youth, Marley and Scrooge apprenticed together while learning business. Eventually joining forces, they formed Scrooge and Marley. Described by Marley as “our money changing hole”, the two became successful bankers, holding seats on the London Stock Exchange, but making most of their fortunes through usurious money lending (i.e., a 19th Century version of usurious credit card and mortgage lenders of today). But the more they made, the more they wanted. Wealthy beyond compare, the two gradually lost all of their friends, become recluses, hoarding and counting their money. On Marley’s death, Scrooge was his “sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner.”
Undeterred by Marley’s aloneness in death, Scrooge, alone in life, continues in his miserly ways with only his loyal clerk, Bob Cratchit, by his side. Treating Cratchit as lower than dirt, Scrooge even has the temerity to argue with Cratchit about taking Christmas Day off from work. But a strange thing happens when Scrooge arrives home on Christmas Eve. Jacob Marley appears in his bedroom! But Marley’s dead! This can’t be happening. This can’t be real. With swirling spirits filling the skies above London and surrounding Scrooge’s house, this must be a dream, a nightmare. Or is it? Knowing how his own callousness and greed destroyed his own life and destined him to a life of servitude and misery even in death, Marley hopes to prevent the same fate for his only friend. Speaking to Scrooge from the beyond, Marley brings an ominous message – you will be visited by three spirits – the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. What you do with the knowledge and insight they bring, is up to you.
An outstanding collective group of talent provides the voicing of the characters. Voicing and serving as the motion capture subject for Scrooge and each of the three Ghosts is none other than rubber faced Jim Carrey. Appearing as Scrooge at various ages in his life, Carrey is magnetic and emotionally animated, attributes which are perfect for the motion capture technique and 3D, particularly as Scrooge in his “bah, humbug” incarnation. Thanks to motion capture, Carrey’s facial expressiveness and physicality are the catalyst for Scrooge’s magical journeys through time and are so striking in 3D there are times you feel your own hair whipping through the wind with skin smooshed against your cheekbones as if on an exhilarating roller coaster ride. As for the three ghosts, while each bears its own individuality, it is Carrey’s performance as the Ghost of Christmas Present that truly captures the love and spirit of the story and the film. Carrey’s greatest gift to these performances is the heartfelt emotion that permeates each character.
A real standout is Colin Firth who, as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, has an exuberance that we rarely see. Always the perfect stodgy Brit, his elan is refreshing and welcome and a perfect counterpart to Jim Carrey’s dower Scrooge. You hear the joy in Firth’s voice which is only compounded by the motion capture translation of his facial expressiveness which nails his not-often-seen-enough-smile to a tee. Also doing double duty as Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim is Gary Oldman. I would have liked to have seen Gary Oldman with a little more speaking work though. And while there is nothing extraordinary about the voicing, the motion capture manages to “tweak” Oldman’s features as Cratchit giving him a jovial elfin look, reminding me more of Doby the House Elf in Harry Potter. Daryl Sabara has really become a Disney stalwart since doing “Spy Kids” and I am quite impressed at the multiple voicing he does here. Robin Wright Penn is the lone female lead as the beautiful Belle, Scrooge’s lost love, as well as picking up some voices of minor characters.
In addition to directing, Robert Zemeckis also does the story adaptation, giving the film an overall has a dark tone in terms of content. Paralleling the Dickens novel, this makes this adaptation all the more wonderful and true. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the utilization of Dickens’ patented language patterns and Old English verbiage and manner of speak rather than update it to 21st Century vernacular. It all adds to the authenticity and classic feel of the film.
What makes DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL so magical is the blend of motion and performance capture and animation enhanced by 3D lensing, the interpretation of which is more than impressive, particularly in capturing the facial expressiveness of Carrey and surprisingly, Colin Firth, a man not normally known for being overly facially exuberant and expressive! For those of you unfamiliar with motion capture, the technique is employed by capturing movement of a person or figure and translating that movement onto a digital computerized model. Here, the movement of each actor is recorded and then turned into animated 3D digital character models . Differentiating the technique of “motion” capture from “performance” capture is that performance capture also captures faces, hands, fingers, toes and nuanced expressions. With DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL, this means near perfect expressiveness of each character and particularly, Carrey.
The 3D is exemplary for the texturization and fabrication of the film which is chock full of minutiae and meticulous detail. The snowflakes are particularly fascinating as they are not just white blobs but striated and in some instances appear configured as true snowflakes and crystalized ice. The magical sequence of “Christmas Present” is exquisitely beautiful and special. Warm, glowing and loving is the Ghost of Christmas Present. Decked out in flowing velvety golden robes, the entire scene is filled with the sparkles and glitter of a happy holiday season. Each time he swept his blazing torch and little magical golden stars filled the screen, I got goosebumps. The entire Christmas Past sequencing looked as if lifted from a Currier & Ives card or a Thomas Kincaid painting. A nostalgic touchstone at its finest. The joy elicited by this sequence will melt even the hardest of hearts and fill them with memories of holidays and winter wonderlands gone by. Particularly notable and effective is the sequencing of Jacob Marley’s ghost which is quite entertaining, and funny, making one immediately think of the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland!!!!
Like soft silken freshly fallen snow atop an perfectly iced pond, composer Alan Silvestri’s score gives the film its final layer of wide-eyed wonder, capturing the emotion of the story, the joy of the season and the suspense of Scrooge’s journeys through time. With a 103 piece orchestra at his beckon call, the end result s emotionally powerful on every level.
Christmas magic never fails to touch the heart and spirit and neither will A CHRISTMAS CAROL. God Bless Us Everyone.
Scrooge/Christmas Ghosts – Jim Carrey
Bob Cratchit/Tiny Tim – Gary Oldman
Fred – Colin Firth
Written and Directed by Robert Zemeckis based on the classic story by Charles Dickens.