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movies / November 9, 2009


I’m morbidly devoted to the works of Charles Dickens. It’s a childhood aberration. At a young age I started reading whatever books were on the family shelves and bonded with Dickens and Twain before I had a fully formed cranium, practically. From them I developed a vaguely 19th century sensibility that’s been nothing but trouble. That’s how I come to ruin me-self.

Anyway, I’m driven to watch film adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol even when I know better. So I went to see the new Jim Carrey one with gloomy foreboding. This, I told myself, is going to suck. And in most ways, it does suck as fully as expected. But there are, surprisingly, a few decent points, too.

One decent point is that writer-director Roger Zemeckis, the jackass who cursed us with Forrest Gump, had the startling good sense to resurrect and re-emphasize the dark side of the story, the ghosts, the poverty, the villainy. So many versions of A Christmas Carol are jolly to a fault, with old Fezziwig dancing for hours and Tiny Tim saying God bless us, everyone, over and over again.

I hear critics are fretting about whether children should be allowed to see this new adaptation, it’s so dark. Exxxxcellent.

Of course, it isn’t really particularly dark. Even the source material is on the lighter side. It’s early Dickens, after all. In 1838 he was still writing relatively sunny stuff. As a young man, he was generally content to kill off one symbolic child per novel. By the time you get to his later output like Bleak House, Dombey & Son, and Our Mutual Friend, his literary outlook is as black as the coal-dust choking London, and the body count is high.

But by our current standards, A Christmas Carol can pass for dark, if we emphasize bleak snowy streets enough, and Marley’s ghost, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and the ghoul-children named Ignorance and Want. Animation helps here. Marley’s ghostly jaw can really drop down to his chest, like it does in the book, and the hooded black specter that is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come can form itself out of Scrooge’s own shadow, a neat effect.

Unfortunately Zemeckis uses most of his 3-D animation tricks to try out the effects that’ll eventually find their way into a Disney theme park ride, if the movie does well enough. It’s kind of dismal, noting how many scenes are theme-park tryouts: “That’s for the ride—that’s for the ride—oh, they can use that shot of Marley’s ghost in the Haunted Mansion…” Scrooge is forever flying, falling, slaloming around the icy streets, monotonously yelling “Whooaaaaa!!”

But much of the rest of the time Zemeckis is grimly concentrating on being faithful to the book, or stealing from earlier movie versions of the book that are admired for their fidelity. The 1951 British film with Alastair Sim is rightly considered to be the best version, and Zemeckis helps himself to heaping handfuls of it. Shot set-ups, line deliveries—yeah, it’s quite a trip down memory lane if you know the 1951 British version.

But all right, fair enough, it’s hard not to steal, the damn book’s been adapted so many times. There are probably thefts here from Scrooged! with Bill Murray.

Jim Carrey is all right as Scrooge, i.e., not as bad as one might fear, not actively distracting in his Jim Carreyness, for once. He doesn’t really have the vocal nuance to pull off his multiple roles of Scrooge and his ghosts. For that you need one of those crazy British actors who can channel anybody, like the ones who narrate the talking books and go convincingly from Cockney kid to Mayfair dame to Shropshire farmer without a pause. Carrey’s voice for The Ghost of Christmas Past (who is represented as a candle with a flame for a head, a highly diverting image inspired by the book) is that of a very polite, stagy young Irishman with a slight lisp. I have no idea why. It’s odd.

On the other hand, Gary Oldman also gets multiple roles here as Marley’s Ghost, Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim, and he’s exactly the kind of crazy British actor I was referring to. Supposedly Oldman, in his early, obsessive, drunken, drug-abusing days when he did all his best work, could pinpoint an accent to within a few miles of its region of origin, like some sort of demented non-fictional Henry Higgins. But he’s pretty dull here. His Cratchit, especially, is bland and non-committal. Sobriety just doesn’t work for certain talents. Somebody get Oldman a whiskey-and-cocaine, stat.

Bob Hoskins does a nice enough job as Fezziwig, but Colin Firth is just okay as Scrooge’s nephew, and Robin Wright Penn shoulda stayed home, she makes so little impression in her roles. They’re not such good roles, admittedly: the sad fiancée Belle and the gushy little sister Fan. Not much to work with there, unless somebody writes some additional material like they did for the 1951 British version. Then Fan especially comes across in her child-bearing deathbed scene, mumbling to her embittered brother, who’s already storming out in a rage at fate, “Ebenezer, take care of my boy, take care of my b—“

Dead, and unheard! Ooh, that scene hurts when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows it to Scrooge! It was a smart adaptation, that ’51 film; it actually improved on Dickens here and there. It’s the only version in which the reconciliation with the nephew at the end packs any punch.

So why didn’t Zemeckis steal it, when he steals so much else? He’s got kind of a rotten sense of pacing, Zemeckis does, and you can’t really trust him to judge what’s worth milking, emotionally, and what isn’t. He clearly thinks certain scenes are richly moving and worth dragging out, when they’re not—just watch how he lingers pointlessly over the early scene with Scrooge and his nephew, slowing to such a crawl that Carrey is delivering every line with pauses between words: “Because…you…fell…in…love.”
But then he whips through a badly truncated version of Dickens’ wonderful scene with the three grotesques, the laundress, the housekeeper, and the undertaker, all arriving at the pawnshop at the same time to cash in on Scrooge’s personal effects that they’ve stolen off his dead body. Even the makers of the old Mr. Magoo TV version of A Christmas Carol had sense enough to extend that scene.

The movie looks slick in that performance-capture-animation sort of way. As with Zemeckis’ other films in this genre, Polar Express and Beowulf, the technology allows for amazing scenic spectacle, but also continues to feature dead-eyed expressions on human characters. A dead-eyed Scrooge is okay, and dead-eyed ghosts are even more appropriate, but virtuous characters like Bob Cratchit and Belle and Tiny Tim still look blank and unfinished, like those annoying Disney animatronic figures.

Luckily, the cure for what ails Disney’s A Christmas Carol can be found in the digitally restored 1951 Brit version that just came out in Blu-ray. It’s in harsh black-and-white, and maintains an air of starkness and melancholy even in the happiest scenes. Alistair Sim as Scrooge looks like a bug-eyed ghoul more suitable to a horror film. My sister tells me she can’t ever watch it again because it’s too depressing—that’s how great it is!

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Add your own

  • 1. Kevin Riley O'Keeffe  |  November 10th, 2009 at 10:07 am

    My dad read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to my mother and me back when I was a child. I must have seen it performed on stage over a dozen times, and I’ve seen most of the movie versions (including the “Mr Magoo” version, although I spared myself the agony of “Scrooged”).

    But you want to know the worst adaptation ever? Its 1979’s “An American Christmas Carol,” starring Henry “The Fonz” Winkler. God, what an abortion that was!!!

  • 2. Nergol  |  November 10th, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Actually, Scrooged, taken on its own merits (not as a faithful Dickens adaptation), was quite enjoyable. Come on… Lee Majors saving Christmas? What’s not to like?

  • 3. cult of skaro 24  |  November 10th, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    I have to disagree with one thing. The very best version of A Christmas Carol was hands down “Blackadder’s christmas Carol”
    It turns the traditional sappy story of redemption on it’s head.

  • 4. S  |  November 10th, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    Speaking of the laundress, the housekeeper, and the undertaker: The musical version of A Christmas Carol starring Albert Finney (Scrooge 1970) was a terrible idea, but still, the whole neighborhood singing: “Thank you very much! It’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me!” when they learn of Scrooge’s death is just fantastic. And the ghost of Christmas present singing “I like life. Life likes me. Life and I fairly fully agree. Etc.” was also quite memorable.

  • 5. twentyeight  |  November 10th, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    Is there a story arc to the “John Dolan” pseudonyms, or is it just more of a pastiche?

  • 6. dermot  |  November 11th, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    +1 for the Blackadder xmas carol – though you really have to have watched the Second Blackadder series (set in the bloodbath of Elizabethan England) to fully appreciate it.

  • 7. Frank McG  |  November 11th, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    Everyone knows the Bill Murray version was the best, and by far the worst version was “American Carol” where Dennis Hopper teaches Michael Moore how to love again by blowing away ACLU lawyers with shotguns.

  • 8. Neil Dunsmore  |  January 18th, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention how they treated Jacob Marley’s spirit in this and how they inserted all these dumb jokes with his mouth that felt like they came from a Monty Python sketch. I mean, that’s almost as bad as casting Jason Alexander for the role in the made-for-TV musical adaptation.

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