Saturday, November 7, 2009

Film Review: A Christmas Carol

"A Christmas Carol" **** (out of ****)

With the opening of "A Christmas Carol" (2009) it would seem the holiday film season has begun, and what a way to start it. I looked forward to seeing this film when I saw trailer but I wasn't quite prepared to be as blown away and as emotionally moved as I was. For me, this latest adaptation of Charles Dicken's classic, is one of the best films of the year. That statement might have meant more if the year wasn't so bad, but nonetheless, the film should be enjoyed and celebrated as a marvelous achievement.

We should all be pretty much familiar on some level with the story. Heaven knows there have been enough adaptations of the story. After doing a quick search on it would seem this is one of Dicken's most adapted works. It seems the most popular (live action) version of the film is the 1951 film "Scrooge" starring Alastir Sim. In my family we always watched the 1938 adaptation "A Christmas Carol" with that great British character actor Reginald Owen (in a role originally intended for Lionel Barrymore, whom for years would play the role on radio). It is one of my grandmother's favorite films and she watches it all the time, not just around Christmas.

This version was directed by Robert Zemeckis, who is perhaps best known for his work with Tom Hanks on projects like "Forrest Gump" (1994) and "Cast Away" (2000) as well as his "Back to the Future" trilogy, using a form of animation he seems most comfortable with since his last three films have been done in the same style. It is called "digital capture". I remember when I saw Zemeckis' "The Polar Express" (2004) how amazed I was by this technique yet at the same time I found it slightly creepy. It all looked so real and yet it wasn't. I think this form as animation is more impressive than "rotoscoping" which has been used on films like "A Scanner Darkly" (2006). The digital capture appears a little more artistic.

You normally may not talk about acting performances in animation but with this kind you do. I was stunned how effective Jim Carrey is in the role. I'm normally not a fan of his comedy with movies like "Bruce Almighty" (2003) and "Liar Liar" (1997). In fact I don't think I've ever seen a movie he was in which I liked. But "A Christmas Carol" is the best thing he has ever done. I knew he was playing the role of Ebenezer Scrooge but had no idea he was also all of the spirits; Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. The fact that I couldn't tell, I feel, speaks volumes about what he has done here. He becomes these characters. He leaves his zany, goofball persona behind. I never for a moment felt I was watching "Jim Carrey". And to give everyone involved their due credit I must say the same about Gary Oldman (as Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley and Tiny Tim) as well as Robin Wright Penn as Belle and Fan. You can tell that is Colin Firth (nephew Fred) and Bob Hoskins (Mr. Fezziwg) but that is not necessarily a criticism.

My favorite movie critic, Michael Wilmington, of, enjoyed this film but said "It's a prodigy of action technique and visual imagination, but not of emotion or character." As much as I admire him, I have no clue what movie he was watching. I always become emotional when I see the scenes with Tiny Tim and Scrooge's reaction to him. And I did once again. I become swept up with the Cratchit's and their problems. I have an emotional investment in what happens to them. I know how it will all end but it doesn't matter. Those scenes get me every time in every version.

As for the "visual imagination" which Wilmington spoke of, he is right on. There were moments when I felt I was there with the characters. I could feel the streets beneath my feet. I could breathe the air with them. There is a scene where Bob Cratchit plays with some children skating down some ice. In that moment I was there.

But the film also has a dark side to it. Especially when Jacob Marley visits Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. I saw the movie with some children in attendance. I think the movie is a bit too scary for them. I would say the film is probably best for those 10 and up. One family walked out. I was considering taking my 5 year old niece to see this, but now I won't. She is scared easily and this will do the trick. But, it makes the film more appealing for adults. This is one of those "children movies" that I suspect parents will enjoy more than their kids. I'd recommend another Disney adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" for the kids. Try "Mickey's Christmas Carol" (1983) which I remember as a child.

"A Christmas Carol" is probably the best thing Zemeckis has done since "Forrest Gump" and like his "The Polar Express" I think he has made a new holiday classic. Film geeks should take special notice to the detail the film provides. I was stunned when I saw the air leaving the character's mouths to suggest how cold it is. You actually see the fumes from fire. How many animated films pay such attention to these details? This is clearly a project which was done out of affection. And I reward Zemeckis and Carrey for their work here.

What is also interesting about "A Christmas Carol" and not just this version is the idea that the Christmas spoken of really has no religious aspect attached to it. No one ever mentions Jesus Christ, which is what I was brought up to believe is what Christmas is about. This is kind of a secular Christmas. Scrooge learns to show generosity towards his fellow man and the poor. It is a lesson in kindness. It all coincides with the teaching of Jesus but it is done so without ever mentioning His name.

p.s. the film is marketed as a 3-D movie. I saw it in the traditional 2-D. I'm sure the 3-D experience will be different but I don't know what it would possibly add to the emotional moments of the film, which is what I think makes the movie. Not so much the action sequences.