tue 20/08/2019

A Christmas Carol | reviews, news & interviews

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

What the Dickens have Jim Carrey and Robert Zemeckis done to this seasonal favourite?

Unchain my heart: Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge

Christmas movies, like seasonal in-store promotions, really are arriving earlier every year. But despite being released before this month’s Catherine wheels have even started spinning, the new Disney version of A Christmas Carol has about it the desperate whiff of an end-of-line knock-off grabbed from a depleted branch of Argos just as the shutters are falling on Christmas Eve.

With its motion-capture animation and state-of-the-art 3-D, as well as a simultaneous release in the eye-popping IMAX format, the film proves that it is possible to be both high-tech and superannuated. Because the picture aims for realistic human textures, and falls short by such a large margin, it feels paradoxically more primitive than other 3-D films, such as Monsters Vs Aliens, Coraline or Up, which trade in blatantly cartoonish fantasy. Motion-capture technology, which uses an actor’s flesh-and-blood performance as the foundation for an extravagantly embellished, computer-generated on-screen avatar, has to date produced only one example of screen acting to rival the old non-CGI kind - Andy Serkis’s tortured Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Other examples have made the error of using this heightened, artificial system to replicate human characteristics, with the result that perfectly fetching actors invariably emerge resembling action-figures of themselves. Among the worst offenders were The Polar Express and Beowulf, so it’s disconcerting that the director of those movies, Robert Zemeckis, is at the helm of A Christmas Carol. Not content with having fed stars such as Tom Hanks and Ray Winstone through the motion-capture mangle, he now transforms Jim Carrey, Colin Firth, Gary Oldman and others into walking, talking cadavers.

This isn’t too jarring when horror is the intended effect. Even under all the digital trickery, it’s possible to see that Carrey is enjoying himself as Ebenezer Scrooge, hamming up the miseryguts routine (even if he’s already done it once before, and more inventively, in The Grinch). And some of the more ghoulish touches, which are unsuitable for nippers, are nasty enough to make the film seem like a tardy Hallowe’en shocker. Jacob Marley’s ghost (also played, like all the spectres, by Carrey) has a dislocated jaw that flaps obscenely as he talks. The Ghost of Christmas Present is last glimpsed as a vast skeleton cackling to itself before being reduced to dust. And the image of a woman whose arms turn into the elongated sleeves of a straitjacket is as cynically unsavoury as any of Gerald Scarfe’s artwork for Pink Floyd.

It’s more of a problem that the homely street-corner carol singers and rosy-cheeked moppets are every bit as disturbing to behold as the grotesque hallucinations. Playing Bob Cratchit, Gary Oldman looks like a chimpanzee which has had Gary Oldman’s face grafted onto its skull, but still hasn’t quite forsaken its old simian ways. As Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, Colin Firth could pass for an inflatable version of himself. Bob Hoskins turns up as Old Fezziwig, pulling a CGI-assisted double-somersault, and causing the more nostalgia-prone viewer to ponder the fact that special effects seemed so much more special 20 or so years ago, when Hoskins worked his socks off for Zemeckis on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Throughout A Christmas Carol, the snowflakes drift so close that you’d swear you can feel them on your face. The emotions at the heart of Dickens’s story, though, have never seemed so remote. Zemeckis has confused fidelity with comprehension. His take on Dickens may adhere, more or less, to the original mid-19th century setting, but in terms of interpreting and dramatising the text, his plodding script can’t hold a candle to the 1988 Bill Murray update Scrooged, or the riotous and oddly touching Muppet Christmas Carol.

In only one respect is A Christmas Carol lavishly real, and even here its craftsmanship backfires. The whooshing, zooming flying shots of which Zemeckis is evidently enamoured drag us over rooftops and snow-covered fields, and past weathervanes that threaten to put out an eyeball or two. My advice to you is this: keep that extra-large popcorn tub nearby when you’ve finished with it. After 90-odd minutes of careering, nauseating camerawork, topped off with the finale’s customary dollop of schmaltz, that empty receptacle may just come in handy.

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