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Dustin Putman

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A Christmas Carol  (2009)
3 Stars
Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
Cast/Voices: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Fionnula Flanagan, Jacquie Barnbrook, Lesley Manville, Fay Masterson, Leslie Zemeckis, Daryl Sabara, Ryan Ochoa.
2009 – 96 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for scary sequences and images).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 3, 2009.
If one is to make opinions on how a film looks based on its marketing campaign, then "A Christmas Carol," the latest retelling of Charles Dickens' classic story, did not inspire much confidence. The trailers and television ads more or less toss away the plot and any mention of Dickens and concentrate instead on action-oriented scene snippets and the superficial fact that it is being released in theaters in Disney Digital 3-D. What the commercials fail to mention is that this overrated 3-D technology dims the brightness of the picture quality by approximately 20% for the added benefit of not much more than an inflated ticket price. The good news is that this version of "A Christmas Carol" is not what the advertising would lead one to believe, and is, in fact, a faithful adaptation, lavishly animated via the same motion-capture technique writer-director Robert Zemeckis used for 2004's "The Polar Express" and 2007's "Beowulf." Even better news is that there will be theaters showing the film in conventional two dimensions, and it is this version that audiences should seek out. The extraneous 3-D simply serves no purpose big enough to forego the full intended impact of the visuals.

In 19th-century England, Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) is a rich, aging, miserable miser so stingy that he refuses to spare two coins to place over the eyes of partner Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman) after he passes away. That was seven Christmas Eves ago and Scrooge hasn't changed one bit since, shunning his grown nephew Fred's (Colin Firth) invite to Christmas dinner, gruffly demanding that clerk Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman) arrive to work early on December 26, and wishing above all else to be left alone. When the chained spirit of Marley suddenly appears to Scrooge in his upstairs bedroom, he is informed that he will be visited by three ghosts—Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come. As Scrooge is taken on a whirlwind tour through time, he is given newfound insight into the value of cherishing the people, rather than the material things, that mean the most in one's life.

"A Christmas Carol" is more darkly foreboding than magical, the film staying mostly true to Charles Dickens (the dialogue is virtually taken verbatim from the text) and not shying away from the horrific and supernatural elements inherent in the tried-and-true tale. With that said, there is a curious emotional detachment to the picture, even in the concluding sequences following Ebenezer Scrooge's turnaround. Perhaps the trouble is that the source material has been remade so many times that there just aren't any surprises left for potential audiences. Or maybe, stacked up against the delicate, wondrous beauty of "The Polar Express," it merely lacks the same dramatic power. Nevertheless, "A Christmas Carol" has endured throughout the decades for a reason—it really is a great story—and writer-director Robert Zemeckis has concocted a rendition to be proud of.

If the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on an abbreviated, only semi-convincing journey that doesn't succeed as it should in portraying how and why Scrooge changed into the greedy, lonely man he became, and the following sections with the other spirits also have their debits—the Ghost of Christmas Present allows Scrooge to eavesdrop on people from an aerial view looking down below his mansion's floorboards, an awkward creative choice, while the glimpse into Scrooge's bleak future drags a little in the pacing department—where the film really comes alive is twofold. The no-nonsense depiction of Ebenezer is terrific, harsh as need be but not so unforgiving that we don't believe his ability to change, and Jim Carrey (2008's "Yes Man") portrays him just right, without any of the over-the-top histrionics he often is known for. Riding beside Scrooge on his fateful odyssey of self-discovery is a pleasure, indeed. The other aspect of the movie that hits the target is in its aesthetics. The motion-capture animation is lovingly brought to life, and Zemeckis' penchant for zooming over landscapes and laying out the settings through seamless camera movements is so exhilarating as to not wear out their welcome. A few slides through tunnels and catapults high into the air can go a long way, particularly since this kind of stuff was already done in "The Polar Express"—there is a difference between a cleanly-told narrative and something generated to mimic a thrill ride for the sake of showing off—but those extraneous bits are only worth the most minor of criticisms.

While Ebenezer Scrooge's cheerful reawakening on Christmas morning plays out as it always has—and is pleasing enough—it doesn't quite match the joyous catharsis it is aiming for. Children not already familiar with the past iterations of "A Christmas Carol" will be in heaven if they can get past the spookier elements, while the rest of viewers will be happy with, if not quite euphoric for, what Zemeckis has cooked up. A morality tale with a message of hope and redemption, the film is ideal for the holiday season. So, too, were the previous fifty adaptations.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman