Thursday, November 18, 2010

An Early Gift: A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Last fall, there was something very odd about sitting in a state-of-the-art multiplex, wearing plastic 3D glasses, and watching a movie that is, in some ways, so thoroughly, reverentially, old-fashioned. A Christmas Carol is one of the most often retold stories, starting with Charles Dickens’s original story from the mid-1800’s and including at least one version for each generation afterwards. Now director Robert Zemeckis has taken cutting-edge Hollywood technology (the same motion-capture animation that he used in the brilliant Polar Express and the noble failure Beowulf) and put it to work on this old story, seemingly lifting most of the dialogue word-for-word from the original text. The sense of looking both backwards and forwards doesn’t distract from the story, however. I’ve heard it many times before. Who hasn’t? But by the end I was still elated for Scrooge and filled with goodwill and Christmas cheer.

The movie mostly follows the mood and spirit of the classic tale like clockwork, moving through the very familiar plot once again, but the dust doesn’t settle around the gears. Zemeckis uses long flowing shots that slide and glide. Many sequences play out in one long take. A marvelous trip through 19th century London is a stunning opening to the film, grounding the movie in an impressive sense of time and place. The encounters with the ghosts are likewise stunning, expressive and bold and sometimes quite frightening. Zemeckis doesn’t forget that this is a ghost story, using swiftly shifting scale, color, and movement to throw the viewer, and Scrooge, off balance. I’m thinking specifically of an extraordinarily well-done sequence with the Ghost of Christmas Present that finds the floor of a room becoming translucent, and then the room itself breaking free from the laws of physics to take Scrooge on a vertigo-inducing trip around London without him ever having to leave his house. Except for a slightly miscalculated sequence involving icicle-related slapstick, this is a film of amazing imagery and narrative fidelity.

Speaking of Scrooge, he’s creepy and crotchety, a great example of excellent character design. He’s wrinkled and elongated with long, bony fingers and a slightly crooked, pointy chin. Jim Carrey, as the performance-capture and voice of the character, does not, despite my worst fears, devolve the role into rubbery shtick. Instead, he remains, like the film itself, remarkably faithful to Dickens words, capably delivering the dialogue and intent behind it. (Though, to be fair, there’s a bit of Alastair Sim in his performance). Carrey also plays the ghosts quite well and the animation supports him superbly; each design is strong and striking, even appropriately haunting. The acting and animation excellence extends to the rest of the cast. Gary Oldman shows up in a handful of roles (including Marley, Mr. Cratchit and Tiny Tim) as do Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, and Robin Wright Penn. They all bring fine physicality and welcome voices.

Even though this is an oft-repeated story, it still moved me. Supported by his excellent cast and a stirring score from Alvin Silvestri, who weaves in rousing renditions of Christmas carols, Zemeckis dazzles visually. He’s always possessed the potential to be, and many times he has been, a great visual storyteller, and with this particular style of animation he has brought his visions to greater heights. Always an innovator, from the time he mixed hand-drawn animation into a neo-noir comedy in the masterful Who Framed Roger Rabbit to the CG tweaking of archival footage in Forrest Gump, Zemeckis has now found, for better or worse, the perfect expression for his technologically driven storytelling. Bringing his skills as a live-action director into a fully animated environment, he moves the camera in ways that would be impossible in the real world, but he rarely lets his technology merely show off. The stunning technique only underlines the story’s inherent compelling qualities. In this case, he creates an admirably faithful, and smart, adaptation of a great story. What’s old is new again. This scary ghost story and moving, comfortably warm Christmas chestnut feels at once fresh and timeless. It thrills and moves like I never thought a new adaptation of A Christmas Carol would or could.

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