A Ghost of a Chance
by Michael Koresky
A Christmas Carol
Dir. Robert Zemeckis, U.S., Walt Disney Pictures
If there’s ever been a scene that requires no embellishment in the translation from page to screen, it’s Ebenezer Scrooge’s meeting with the melancholy crumble of bones that were once Jacob Marley. Yet in Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture update of A Christmas Carol, this most famous of narrative-inciting exchanges nearly bursts with overemphasis. Not content to merely moan and rattle his chains, this Marley is a veritable explosion of frights; when he tells Scrooge of the clanking irons invisibly wrapped around his own body and soul, wailing, “It is a ponderous chain,” the “p” is pronounced with such force that spittle and teeth fly out of Marley’s gaping mouth and directly into not only Scrooge’s face but also those of the audience members flinching behind their 3-D glasses. Then, when Marley retorts to Scrooge’s protestations that he was a good man of business with the heart-stirring speech, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business,” the words emanate from its gaping, cracked jaw, and though the image is borrowed from Dickens, here it only serves to make such gorgeous prose a nearly indecipherable, garbled hiss.
That some of the most beautiful passages in the English language become mere means to an end in Zemeckis’s film rather than its necessary emotional centerpiece—the chestnut dressing rather than the roast goose, let’s say—is the first clue as to where the director’s sympathies ultimately lie. That Zemeckis is beholden to technology more than his oft-adapted source material is neither particularly surprising (in films from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Death Becomes Her to Forrest Gump, Zemeckis has always flaunted cutting-edge effects like the latest Easter bonnet) nor is it necessarily an artistic detriment, yet when he sacrifices character and depth to his own stubborn, cartoonish whims, everybody loses. Zemeckis and Disney Studios would have you believe right from the start that this Christmas Carol is not only a faithful adaptation but also a production made in the spirit of the novel, which might explain its storybook-like beginning, aping the openings of the Disney films from the thirties and forties, in which cloth-bound editions of fairy tales such as Snow White, perched on dimly lit library tables, would open up into worlds of animated wonder. Of course, A Christmas Carol is no fairy tale, but a typically grim, haunting, and site-specific Dickens work, and the incongruity of the image infers a slight disconnect that the rest of the film bears out, most flamboyantly in its technical showmanship.
Considering that this quintessential tale of redemption is little more than a wire hanger on which Zemeckis wishes to display his gaudy latest fashions, his first act is unexpectedly hushed, relying on the appropriately smog-choked London exteriors and the single candle-lit rooms of Scrooge’s office and gloomy mansion for effect. Always a stagy introduction, the early scenes of A Christmas Carol simply squat down with Scrooge as he deals with a succession of unwanted visitors, including his cheerful nephew, Fred, and two kindly collectors for the poor who are summarily turned away when Scrooge’s states his preference for prisons and workhouses to charity-giving. Zemeckis’s reluctance to open up this purposely claustrophobic scene (as Clive Donner did, effectively, in his superlative 1984 television adaptation starring George C. Scott, by clarifying the details of Scrooge’s business in a scene set at the London trading house) is surprising and sets the film off on the right dreary foot, visually adhering to Dickens’s assertion that Scrooge is “solitary as an oyster.” As Scrooge, Jim Carrey is similarly subdued at the outset—introverted and melancholy as opposed to grandiosely, grotesquely mean, as many interpreters of the character, such as Reginald Owen in 1938 and Albert Finney in 1970, have been.
And though the poltergeists do often get in the way of the poetry, with his unfettered “camera,” Zemeckis does create some luscious, even whip-smart, imagery, as in the opening single-take overview of London (Forrest Gump’s feather following now seems mere warm-up for Zemeckis’s ever more gravity-defying flights of fancy), which dives in and out of buildings and houses, rich and poor, imparting an epic sense of scale and social class. And the individualized effects and designs that identify the three spirits that haunt Ebenezer (each played by Carrey, but vocally altered enough that it doesn’t register as a distraction) are gratifyingly idiosyncratic. The Ghost of Christmas Present, while still a jolly giant given to fits of remorseful sarcasm and anger, is now a sedentary being who doesn’t leave Scrooge’s living room, instead showing the miser the wonders of family and togetherness through the transparent wooden floorboards—the effect is both thematically provocative, even Capraesque (you can learn to appreciate the world’s beauties without even leaving your home, if only you care to look) and visually dazzling, a spectacle especially vertiginous in 3D. The Ghost of Christmas Future is fittingly a hovering, resolute grim reaper figure, yet (in a slight borrow from Clive Donner’s version) Zemeckis presents him abstractly in silhouette and shadow—the image is familiar yet striking and vivid.
The film’s one character triumph, however, is the Ghost of Christmas Past, conceived as though a lit candle in vague, floating human form, its head a flickering ball of flame detached from a hazy white formless body; its design might make too obvious Dickens’s conception of the extinguishing cap it carries, yet such literal-mindedness matters little in the face of such ethereal beauty, and it’s accompanied magnificently by a stuttering, hissing, gentle performance by Carrey that sounds as though it’s emerged from aquatic depths. Zemeckis and his animators also use their technological opportunity to represent one of Dickens’s more difficult to visualize gambits, which I hadn’t seen in any previous version. At the end of the book’s second “stave,” Dickens writes that, in the ghost’s face “were fragments of all the faces it had shown him.” Here, the Ghost’s face does morph into all those from the past who had haunted him, from his lost Belle to the chummy Fezziwig to his little sister Fan. It’s a final touch that makes an already entrancing character even more moving; quite simply, such a creation is enough to make one believe in the whole enterprise.
But then again, when said extinguishing cap rockets a screaming Scrooge quite truly to the moon; when in the future segment Scrooge is pointlessly shrunk down to Lilliputian size and sent on a demonic chase through London’s sewer pipes tracked by a runaway hearse’s demonic horses; when Fezziwig and his equally plump wife dance in circles around their holiday party like spinning tops with no grounding in the reality of their finely detailed surroundings—one is thrust back to the realization of Zemeckis’s show-off ringmaster persona, and consequently, that we’re made part of an often nonsensical, plastic, experimental world that has yet to reach its expressive potential. Since his execrable Chris Van Allsburg adaptation The Polar Express, Zemeckis has been most criticized for the “dead-eye effect” of the motion-capture animation technique, to which he’s now devoted years of his life (Cast Away was his last traditional live-action film). In A Christmas Carol, this problem seems to have mostly been solved—based on his face as well as the actor’s voice work, Scrooge is an especially empathetic character, and the same can be said of Cratchit (Gary Oldman), Belle (Robin Wright), and Fred (Colin Firth). Yet other problems seem more noticeable in its absence: the characters’ entire physical beings are wholly without relatable human limberness, their arms and legs rubbery, and in one case, a hand extended right out to the audience seems more like a stiff poker jabbing us in the face. And with their sculpted, shiny cheeks and chins, everyone, old and young, still looks as though they just came from a visit to the plastic surgeon (maybe in Hollywood they don’t notice this surface oddness?). This is particularly jarring when the cartoons appear as likenesses of the actors, with creepily subtle alterations: Firth suddenly has a cleft chin; Oldman’s forehead seems to have doubled in width.
Of course, to focus on the film’s technical details might seem appropriate (Zemeckis surely wants us to pore over them, so obsessive are he and his team), but it also distracts from some of Zemeckis’s elegant narrative choices—which foreground how finely sensitive and dramatic this filmmaker could once again be if he weren’t driven to distraction himself. For instance there’s a nearly breathtaking acknowledgment of Christmas as (gasp) nonsecular tradition that’s missing from most other adaptations, save Cratchit’s (always curiously unnamed) invocation of Christ, or rather, “He who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” This is the only version I’ve seen, I believe, that makes use of Dickens’s gorgeous and still quite contemporary aside, spoken through the admonishing Ghost of Christmas Present, that true Christianity is a holy spirituality completely separate from those who abuse others in its name.
'There are some upon this earth of yours,' returned the Spirit, 'who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all out kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.'
Zemeckis’s quotation of this passage is admirable. Yet it also reminds us that this eternally stirring story’s profound beauty needs no gewgaws and whiz-bangs to impress its lessons upon us. It shouldn’t be a shock that any Christmas Carol—which is after all a surreal ghost story that opens itself up for all sorts of visual effects possibilities—would turn out to be a sound and light show, and all in all, this new version is a worthy enough addition to a never-ending canon of Christmas Carol film adaptations. But what it mostly reaffirms is that that the pen is indeed mightier than the pixel.