A great deal of money has been expended in order to bring the Robert Zemeckis 3D animated version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL to the screen. And yet, for all the showy set pieces that have Scrooge (Jim Carrey) hurtling through the stratosphere at breakneck speeds creating dizzying tableaux of impressively changing perspectives, every woman in the film who wears a shawl, wears exactly the same shawl. Exactly, Such jarring bits of cut corners abound here, and the questions arise. Are the less than perfectly executed bits supposed to set off the truly terrific ones, or are the truly terrific ones supposed to distract the viewing audience from the bits that go clunk in the night?
The story remains true, for the most part, to the Dickens novel and preserves the rich, poetic language of it. Zemeckis strays by starting with the death of Scrooge’s partner, Marley, but uses the paying of the undertaker to establish, in a graphically rich way, the psychic pain Scrooge feels at having to part with money. Beyond that, he uses the subsequent montage that swooshes through a bustling London in the throes of Yuletide merriment as a vivid contrast to the bleak isolation that Scrooge has chosen for himself. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, when he makes its appearance, is easily the most terrifying yet brought to the screen, envisioned as it is as Scrooge’s very own dark side sprung to wraith-like reality. This is very much a ghost story. The thump and clank that announces the arrival of Marley’s ghost is hair-raising. The chance he offers Scrooge of redemption by the visit of three ghosts genuinely off-putting and when they arrive, they are spirits who believe in tough love.
Carrey plays not just Scrooge at every age of his life, but also the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present. The former has an Irish accent and a candle with arms for a body and a flame for a face, the which said spirit enjoys wafting through the air like a helium balloon. The latter has a Scottish accent and meets an end that Dickens never imagined, but Fellini might have. Each of these characters is rendered with a painstaking attention to detail. Scrooge’s face in old age is particularly life-like, hatchet-shaped and balancing on a rail-thin body that moves with creaky determination. Marley’s ghost is also beautifully realized, and downright terrifying with broken teeth and a jaw that comes as unhinged as the doomed spirit itself. It’s all the other characters that are wanting. Gary Oldman’s Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk, has a moon-face like Humpy Dumpty and a simpleton’s expression rendered in a less than supple rubber. His youngest child, Tiny Tim (also voiced by Oldman), isn’t handicapped by a lame leg so much as a mannequin-like appearance that makes him only slightly less spooky that the phantoms. The same affliction is to be found in all the other characters, a failing exacerbated by the tragic attempts to animate them. They move like marionettes at the mercy of untutored puppeteers desperately trying to keep the strings from tangling. The dance at Fezziwig’s, the nadir of the film, fails to establish Fezziwig (Bob Hoskins) as making contact with the floor on which he walks.
That Zemeckis has re-imagined Charles Dickens’ tale of a miser’s redemption as an action flick is one thing. Plot-wise, there is no reason to have Scrooge hurtling through London with a ghostly hearse on his heels. Then again, with the endless possibilities provided by animation, the interlude that envisions England’s capital as the land of the dead and the hearse pulled by equally ghostly horses with eyes that are burning red takes full advantage of the medium in a visually adventurous fashion that is spooky and that is also just plain fun to watch. Shrinking Scrooge down to the size of a mouse, on the other hand, is pushing the envelope without the same payoff. Rather, it’s just plain odd.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL has lent itself to many variations over the years, such is the appeal to audiences of all ages of its optimistic hope for human nature. This version, though, may be too intense for the younger kids, who might otherwise be inclined to forgive a lapse in animation sophistication. As for the older kids and adults who would appreciate the element of true terror, its hard to imagine them getting past the horror that is the poor excuse of animation.