The biggest surprise by far to be found in Robert Zemeckis's new adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol is that it isn't absolutely dreadful. Perfectly pointless, maybe, but not dreadful.
At this point, there have been so many film adaptations of the 1843 novella that it's nearly impossible to imagine what conceivable purpose another one could serve other than to provide this studio or that with some easy money during the holidays. I wish Disney well in this endeavor, for elsewise it might jeopardise their deal to produce Zemeckis's proposed motion-capture remake of Yellow Submarine, a can't-miss idea if ever I've heard of one.
But back to my point, which is that after 20 previous theatrical adaptations (quoth the Wikipedia), plus at least that many TV movies and God knows how many individual episodes of TV series, we've pretty much run the well dry on new interpretations of the plot, unless it be something pointedly radical and revisionist, and since I have mentioned the names of both Disney and Robert Zemeckis, you can safely assume that this latest version of the story is not those things. Indeed, one of its unexpected charms is that it's one of the most faithful and straightforward of all cinematic re-tellings of the story - to the letter, at least, if never quite to the spirit. Unlike many (most, even) versions of A Christmas Carol, this one actually remembers that it's supposed to be a ghost story, at the very least; and creepy enough at a great many points that I am vaguely shocked that Disney agreed to put it out (my God, what happens to the Ghost of Christmas Present!). All other flaws aside, I do appreciate that Zemeckis (who also wrote the screenplay, which largely means that he transcribed the novel into screenplay form) remembers that Dickens's original was pretty damn spooky alongside all of its heartwarming sentiment. Unfortunately, the trade-off is that this film is pretty light on heartwarming sentiment.
You know what? I take it all back, there is a way in which this offers a previously-unseen spin on the well-worn tale: never before has A Christmas Carol been presented in 3-D and motion-capture CGI animation, the gimmicky technology that Zemeckis persists in believing to somehow be the future of motion pictures, ignoring the evidence of his own terrible films The Polar Express and Beowulf. While A Christmas Carol is probably easier to look at than either of those two films, it suffers badly from the very same crippling trait that made both of them essential unwatchable: mo-cap characters are just about the most horribly ugly things in God's creation, with the eyes being a particular sticking point in the Zemeckis films (how in the hell Weta Digital produced such fine work six and seven years ago in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, but Zemeckis's people do such a hatchet job of it, I cannot possibly explain). At their very best, the characters in Zemeckis's unholy trinity have the look of exquisitely detailed, finely articulated, photorealistic masks, made out of some uncanny inorganic material; Scrooge (voiced and performed by Jim Carrey) is absolutely an example of the best this style has yet produced: craggy and old, with a hint of Jim Carreyness that doesn't really distract from the character itself, the only problem is that when he moves, you half expect him to squeak like new-molded plastic.
Every other character, meanwhile, is fucking hideous. The least-objectionable is Bob Cratchit, played by and modeled after Gary Oldman (who also plays Jacob Marley) as, for some strange reason, a four-foot man with bushy hair, and if you ever wondered what it would look like if a caricature of Oldman played a hobbit, well, you need to run, not walk, to A Christmas Carol. Outside of him, it's just one grotesque after another in an endless parade: Colin Firth plays nephew Fred, looking terrifyingly like a Colin Firth video game avatar, and while I would totally play that video game, I don't want to watch it onscreen. Worse still is Bob Hoskin's Mr. Fezziwig,an unholy demon with Hoskin's features poking out of an unnaturally plump face, that sits atop a round little body that dances about with a perfectly wicked combination of wild abandon and stiffness, one of the least-natural examples of human movement that I have ever seen in a movie.
The ugliest, and the most detrimental to the film, is Tiny Tim (voiced by Ryan Ochoa, performed by Oldman), the character that we need to absolutely love and treasure if the movie is to find its emotional center. It is his guileless "God bless us, every one!" that is of course the whole heart and soul of the story. And in Zemeckis's A Christmas Carol, he is a disgusting waxwork imp, about as appealing as the ventriloquist's dummy in one of those "killer ventriloquist's dummy" pictures back in the '50s and '60s. I would happily have clawed the flesh of my whole body so that I could bleed to death and stop having to look at Tiny Tim, except that the sheer power of his Uncanny Valley atrociousness froze me in my seat.
I think that it must be nothing but the unpleasant appearance of the characters that deprives this Christmas Carol of any and all emotional resonance; because Zemeckis certainly plays all the right notes otherwise, and Carrey is shockingly restrained and effective as Scrooge (he is much less effective as the three ghosts, but that has a lot to do with some very ill-considered character design). It just lacks a soul, any soul at all; Scrooge's redemption is not credible, if only because nobody around him seems all that human, and we don't necessarily want him to be nicer to them. Also, Zemeckis is a bit too much of an entertainer for his own good, and it pleases him to use his box of CGI toys to break out some very stupid spectacle: the constant long-take swooping about London I could probably be okay with, but the protracted chase scene on a Christmas Yet To Come, between a mouse-sized Scrooge and the Ghost's skeletal coach horses, is... just about as bad as I think it sounds from the description, actually, not to mention that it's a slap to the mood and meaning of the story.
Still, there were parts of it that I thought would have absolutely worked if they were animated better, or in live-action - and once again, Zemeckis has failed to justify using mo-cap in a film that could have been quite as functional and not at all so appalling, if 'twere live-action and CGI - and that is much better than I would have thought possible. As a story, it has very little that's even slightly wrong with it until the Ghost of Christmas Future comes along and turns it into a horror thrill ride; and while I still don't see the damn point of it all, if you're looking for a dose of Dickens and you absolutely insist that it must be inside a movie theater, well, A Christmas Carol '09 Edition will actually serve your needs just fine. Who would have thought?