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A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009) (***)

Since the beginning of cinema there have been adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic holiday ghost tale. Many think of the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim. I have a soft spot for A MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL for its great humor. Director Robert Zemeckis makes his version with puppets as well, only digital puppets. Performance capture has allowed him to do anything with the tale.

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Since the beginning of cinema there have been adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic holiday ghost tale. Many think of the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim. I have a soft spot for A MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL for its great humor. Director Robert Zemeckis makes his version with puppets as well, only digital puppets. Performance capture has allowed him to do anything with the tale.

Jim Carrey brings to life Scrooge, who here is sickly thin and more vulture-like than ever before. With the performance capture technology, Carrey is able to play the three ghosts as well. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a flicker of fire, who speaks with an ethereal tone. The closest to Dickens’ description I’ve ever seen. The Ghost of Christmas Present is as he has been portrayed before as a large jolly fellow. But I really like his haunting transformation as the hour chimes and he chuckles as he turns to bones. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is often just a shadow creeping on the wall and pointing a skeletal finger.

It’s true that this adaptation comes very close to the original short story, but so many have come close. So this adaptation’s success lies firmly on your appreciation of the style. For me it works compellingly most of the time. The imagery for the ghosts is wonderful, especially the first and third phantoms. Scrooge is another wonderfully designed character. He is Scrooge as anyone would image he would look like.

Some have complained that the performance capture characters are like zombies. It doesn’t bother me that much, but unlike THE POLAR EXPRESS and BEOWULF, it bothered me more here. So your appreciation of the technique will influence your appreciation of the film. Performance capture seems to work best in close up and less so the wider the frame gets. Zemeckis makes this a wide world, which is filled with rich details and epic scope, but this wider view shows off the performance capture’s limitations. The scene at the party of Mr. Fezziwig (Bob Hoskins, MONA LISA) is a good example. The dancing seems too fast and cartoony. And Zemeckis’ indulgences, like having the middle-aged Fezziwig back flipping over his desk, ruin the illusion of life.

But for me these weaker moments were forgotten in the midst of the positive moments. Subtlety of performance shines in the scene between a young Scrooge and his love Belle (Robin Wright, FORREST GUMP). It’s never said straight forward but we know what has driven these characters apart. Zemeckis adds in roller coaster-like action sequences that skillfully bridge the transitions from one ghost to the next. He understands that this is a ghost story and that even the gentler ghosts are still ghosts and meant to scare Scrooge straight. That tone he gets right.

Like any new adaptation of something so well known, the new elements are what make the new version worth seeing. Carrey is good as Scrooge and his performance comes through. He is an arrogant man humbled how insignificant he really is. The supernatural elements are captured well with traditional filmmaking skills in the editing, lighting and direction. This isn’t a revolutionary new version of the tale, but it is a good one.

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Rick DeMott
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