Mark Reviews Movies

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Cast: Voices and/or performances of Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright Penn, Bob Hoskins

MPAA Rating: PG (for scary sequences and images)

Running Time: 1:36

Release Date: 11/6/09


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Review by Mark Dujsik

It is with a sense of surprise and pleasure that I report that Robert Zemeckis' adaptation of Charles Dickens' novella "A Christmas Carol" is sincerely faithful to the source material. The film opens with a slow pan down to the cover of a first edition copy of the story, and it's not false advertising. The language, the themes, and even John Leech's original illustrations are the inspiration for this wonderfully dark and ultimately uplifting and touching tale of a man's transformation from an affluent but thrifty wretch into a good-hearted man of social conscience.

I'm surprised, of course, because Dickens' original is entirely concerned with two things: morality and mortality. These are not the typical thematic concerns we come to associate with a computer-animated Disney film, but they are here in A Christmas Carol in all of Dickens' earnest, preachy, and morose glory. Decrying the greed of capitalism, championing the efforts of altruism in government and the individual, and reminding everyone that the spirit of giving of Christmas need not die on December 26th are the aims of the parable, and that's what Zemeckis wisely maintains throughout this visually stunning and emotionally potent morality tale.

That's where the pleasure comes in, for in keeping all of this, we can better appreciate Dickens' story as a product of the Industrial Revolution and find that its relevance continues to this day.

This is the third film in which Zemeckis has toyed in the digital realm, using "performance capture" to attempt a hyper-realistic recreation of human beings. Once again, the technique leads to a strange journey into the Uncanny Valley, where characters appear a bit off because they look so convincing, yet, here, that works in the film's favor.

It also allows Zemeckis a lot of stunning sights, like an early, sweeping one-take through London, where we go from a bird's eye view to the window of the mayor's grand banquet hall to the poor children waiting by the kitchen window for scraps. Technology is only as good as its use to serve the story, and Zemeckis clearly keeps that in mind. The tricks of this film are never superfluous.

That fly through the city establishes the class distinction so much on Dickens' mind. There are the needy, and then, for our concise purposes, there's Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey), a man who has physical difficulty giving the undertaker two pence for caring for the body of his deceased partner. He takes the pence off his partner's eyes to even the loss.

Scrooge is greed personified. When a pair of men comes looking for a donation for the poor on Christmas Eve seven years after his partner's death, Scrooge wonders if the jails, union workhouses, and treadmills are out of business. Some people would rather die than go to any of these, and Scrooge thinks that would help contain the surplus population.

He lives alone in a grand, gloomy manor. The stairs tower before him. Dwarfed by the tall ceilings, he hunches, frail, with a cane. This Christmas Eve, the ghost of his dead partner (Gary Oldman, who also provides voice and performance for Scrooge's underpaid, overworked employee Bob Cratchit and Cratchit's son, the invalid Tiny Tim) appears to Scrooge to warn of the punishment for a life as a "good business man." He has wandered the earth these seven years, tied down by the chains he made while alive.

The rest of the story, of course, is familiar to all after so many decades of retellings, and Scrooge is once again visited by the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet-to-Come (all Carrey). He learns the error of his ways by being scared close to and of death—a death alone, with only laughter and happiness to mark his passing.

It's the way Zemeckis and his collaborators tell the tale that sets it apart and serves as a revitalizing version of the story. The goings-on in Scrooges house are the things of a Gothic nightmare—a haunting by candlelight. The house is claustrophobic, stifling, and void of seemingly anything human except the furniture and draperies, which are the only things Scrooge's servants are concerned about after the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come shows him his death. His material possessions were all the mattered to him in life, and they are all that will matter to those who knew him after he has gone.

Christmas Past shows Scrooge what he already knew: a lonely childhood, a loving, now deceased younger sister, a beautiful young woman (Robin Wright Penn) who loved Scrooge when he didn't care if they were poor as long as they were together. Since then, he became afraid of poverty and left her wanting.

Christmas Present shows him his nephew (Colin Firth), who himself is now in love, jesting at his uncle's reputation and Cratchit, who toasts to his boss' health in spite of his wife's cutting remarks. And of course, Tiny Tim's chair will soon be vacant if things don't change for the family.

These are the lessons of the past and present, and while Scrooge gets the point, the ghostly realm has Christmas Yet-to-Come in store for him. A black carriage chases him through the enclosing streets of London, while murderers, thieves, and other villains appear around him. When shrunk down smaller than a rat, he's forced to climb through sewage pipes, nothing more than literal human waste. A dark shadow lingers, always following him, showing him that he will eventually die.

It's a frightful vision, to be sure, but a human one, too, and Zemeckis doesn't shy from the visual allegory (Christmas Present's death and revealing of the personifications of Ignorance and Want are particularly effective). He doesn't pull the symbolic punches, because Dickens didn't either. It's all very clear-cut, but that's what a morality tale is supposed to be.

In spite of its holiday trappings, A Christmas Carol is an incredibly bleak look into the deepest and darkest human fears, but it is also a vibrant celebration of our better natures.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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