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Surprisingly imaginatively conceived and executed - until it turns into a theme park rollercoaster ride
on 21 January 2012
Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol is one of those films that almost finds new cinematic potential in Dickens' most famous and beloved tale before losing its way in his eagerness to show off his new technology at the expense of the story. It certainly starts off decently enough with Jim Carrey's animated Ebenezer Scrooge taking the coins from his dead partner Jacob Marley's eyes ("Tuppence is tuppence"), but you do start to wonder just why Zemeckis felt the need to render it in hugely expensive motion captured CGI - or at least until the camera takes exhilarating flight and soars above the rooftops and through the streets of a festive Victorian London. It's a joyous and expansive bit of showoffery that's a much more sophisticated throwback to putting the Cinerama cameras on a rollercoaster back in the 50s, setting the time and place and even finding time to give a brief nod to Seymour Hicks' 1935 version. Even when the camera comes down to earth it's often imaginatively conceived and directed despite its tendency to throw in bits of business just because they'll look good in 3D.
The computer animation at least has advanced since Zemeckis' previous MoCap epic Beowulf. There's none of the problem with dead eyes that plagued earlier Mocap films, though there's still a problem when presenting anyone who isn't a caricature or a fantastic creature: you simply wonder what is the point of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars rendering a real person into something that's neither cartoon nor convincing human. It's fine when you're dealing with the sharp chinned emaciated Scrooge or rendering Fezziwigg to something like the original novel's illustrations, but the supporting cast and bit players manage to be both undistinguished and odd at the same time. Only Belle, the one character rendered almost photorealistically as if to emphasise that she was the one genuine chance for humanity in the old miser's life, seems successful. Others, like Scrooge's nephew Fred, are particularly worrying, looking like Colin Firth after a rather nasty case of swelling. That Firth seems to play the novel's bastion of the good cheer and open heartedness of the season as even angrier than Scrooge only adds to the misjudgement - rather than countering his uncle with goodwill he seems to be so intent on starting a fight that even Mother Theresa would have been tempted to punch his lights out.
There's great atmosphere in the buildup to the appearance of Marley's Ghost and an interesting new take on The Ghost of Christmas Past, here seen as a flickering candle with a soft Irish accent and also played, like all three spirits, by Carrey. Sadly, just when you think Zemeckis might have genuinely cracked it, the film takes a serious wrong turn with The Ghost of Christmas Present, a brash Midlander in a less than successfully realised flying house with an invisible floor, which is an even worse idea than it sounds. Rather than have Scrooge in the middle of events so he can be an invisible part of all he has been missing, it keeps him at a remove, looking down. Things get even worse with his violent and painful death at the stroke of midnight, disintegrating like Dracula in daylight. His encounter with The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is another missed opportunity - there is one genuinely powerful moment on the staircase with Bob Cratchit but unfortunately Zemeckis is far more interested in diverting wildly from the text to turn it into a series of rollercoaster ride chases with a mouse-sized Scrooge through sewer pipes and across rooftops and washing lines to show off the 3D. They're not without energy and imagination, but you do wonder what on earth they're doing in this story. Things do eventually right themselves - Dickens' story is almost indestructible - but it's hard to shake the disappointment that something that started so intriguingly and showed such promise ended up more like one of those 3D theme park rides.
Naturally the extras concentrate on the mechanics of actors in green suits with reference point dots all over them going through the motions in a large green soundstage, with Zemeckis offering few comments on anything other than technical issues in the picture-in-picture featurettes on the Blu-ray. Unusually most of the other extras have also been carried over to the DVD edition - a featurette on adapting the book, with a Dickens' academic shooting herself in the foot with some rather dubious claims that the film's departures from the novel are in keeping with the author's intentions, six uncompleted deleted scenes that offer a curious mix of live action faces and crude computer animatics, and a brief featurette about one of the child performers. The Blu-ray also has a surprisingly neat interactive advent calendar.