Thursday, 20 December 2012

Film Review | A Christmas Carol (2009)

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has received countless big screen adaptations, becoming just as much a cinematic staple as a literary one during the festive season. But with so many versions already out there, the challenge for any director bringing us a new take on the story of Scrooge is to bring something fresh and original to proceedings. Robert Zemeckis' choice to make Dickens' Christmas ghost story his third venture into CGI motion capture cinema, following 2004's The Polar Express and 2007's Beowulf, had the potential to be the perfect way to bring the supernatural elements of the tale to life. Unfortunately, it's a potential which the film only manages to partially fulfill.

If you don't know the story (and where have you been if you don't?), A Christmas Carol takes place one Christmas Eve, as miserable miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) is haunted first by the spirit of his deceased business partner Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman), then by three ghosts representing Christmas Past (Carrey again), Present (and again) and Yet To Come (yep, Carrey too), in order to convince him to change his ways.

Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol really is a mixed bag; when it get things right, it gets them very right, but it also misses the mark by a considerable margin in several ways. It's often the most chilling and scary elements of the story which benefit the most from the motion capture treatment. The scene in which Oldman's Marley torments Carrey's Scrooge is one of the strongest and most memorable of the whole film. The inclusion of some of the often overlooked elements,such as the personification of Ignorance and Want as creepy children accompanying Christmas Present, are also welcome and inspired touches.

The casting decisions too run the gamut of success. Carrey as Scrooge is strong, but as the three Christmas Ghosts is less successful, distractingly adopting a strange and unconvincing Irish accent as Christmas Past and another which meanders around the north of England as Christmas Present. The same can be said for Oldman in his multiple roles: he is superb as Marley and good as Bob Cratchit, but the idea to use Oldman's face for Tiny Tim is both odd and unsettling - initially not all that noticeable, but once it hits you ironically it's more haunting than some of the ghosts.

It's in some of its more spectacular set pieces that the film feels least successful. Sequences such as Scrooge being shot up into the air on a giant candle snuffer by Christmas Past, or being chased through the streets of Victorian London by a demonic horse and carriage driven by Christmas Future, may showcase the film's technical mastery - as well as undoubtedly giving the immersive element in the 3D version (which I wasn't watching) some mileage. But they ultimately come across as soulless and a little overlong, as well as adding nothing to the story. A tale as ingeniously simple and effective in its concept and message as this doesn't need to have the lily gilded with overblown spectacle.

It's this that ultimately holds this version of A Christmas Carol back from being anything more than just good. There are elements here to enjoy a great deal in isolation, but as a whole the film fails to capture the spirit of Dickens' tale, preferring glossy surface level sheen to anything deeper or more heartfelt underneath. An ultimately ironic verdict for a story all about shunning the material side of life and embracing humanity.


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