Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Film review: Zemeckis' take on Scrooge an instant classic

The ghost of Jacob Marley visits Ebenezer Scrooge,
in Robert Zemeckis' version of A Christmas Carol.

By John Thomason

The cinematic potential of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is bounteous and apparently endless. Perennially relevant, A Christmas Carol has seen at least 20 film adaptations dating back to a 1901 single-reeler.

Considering that it’s already been reenvisioned by Mickey and the Muppets, by Ronald Neame as an Albert Finney musical (Scrooge), by Richard Donner as a droll Bill Murray comedy (Scrooged), and by David Zucker as a flaccid right-wing screed (An American Carol), each new treatment of the 1843 novella risks falling victim to novelty, imitation and a shelf life of purgatorial superfluity.

So when I say that Robert Zemeckis’ new 3D animated version will be remembered 50 years from now, it’s saying something. Like an aging workhorse injected with adrenaline, A Christmas Carol catapults through the screen as never before.

Too often, directors working with source material as hallowed as Dickens are too reverential to experiment, filming exactly what’s on the page and little else. This galloping, thrilling adaptation couldn’t be further from that staid tendency, taking its three-dimensionality to post-Pixarian flights of existential fancy and coloring its compositions in a way as meticulous and arresting as anything shot by Vittorio Storaro or Gordon Willis.

To be fair, the film takes a while to reach its artistic pinnacle. Its opening third, faithful to the letter as it may be (Zemeckis retains much of Dickens’ poetry, such as “I see a vacant seat, in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without its owner, carefully preserved”), is exactly the kind of static treatment that might render the adaptation pointless. Animating the Ghost of Christmas Past as a Casper-like spirit with a flaming head makes for a bizarre and off-putting vision, too.

It isn’t until the godlike, towering Ghost of Christmas Present enters the picture that its imagination soars, and from that point forward, it’s absolutely flawless. This sequence employs the 3D technology to peer through a hardwood floor into the vast world below and around, uprooting Scrooge’s – and the spectator’s – sense of space and forecasting the ambitious special effects and camera trickery yet to come.

Recognizing that A Christmas Carol is a terror-filled ghost story as much as a redemptive holiday uplift, Zemeckis’ transition from the mirthful Ghost of Christmas Present to the shadowy, Death-like specter of Christmas Yet to Come is a horror-film showstopper. Part phantasmagoric adventure, part gothic fever dream, the set-pieces are like something out of Murnau, not Disney – or perhaps like Salvador Dali’s take on Fantasia. All the while, the 3D makes the sense of permeable menace all the more palpable, literally in your face.

An omnipresent Jim Carrey contributes eight voices, predominantly that of Scrooge, an angular and creaky curmudgeon with a forehead the size of Idaho. Unlike, say, Robin Williams in Aladdin, Carrey doesn’t chew the soundtrack or devolve into protracted Ace Ventura-isms. It’s true character acting, as opposed to personality acting, and he deserves praise for it. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn and Cary Elwes add similarly implacable, stately voices to the supporting cast.

And the story still works beautifully as an anti-capitalist parable (driven only by the profit motive and harboring selfish disregard for the underlings around him, Scrooge today would likely work for AIG or Citigroup). Knowing exactly where the story is going doesn’t dilute one iota of its emotional resonance.

Tears will well up in your eyes in the film’s closing stanzas, liquid proof that it’s impossible to be too jaded for A Christmas Carol.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures; Director: Robert Zemeckis; Cast: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Daryl Sabara, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright Penn, Bob Hoskins, Jacquie Barnbrook, Lesley Manville; Rated: PG; Opens: Friday; Venue: Most commercial houses

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