by Mel Valentin
Robert Zemeckis ("Castaway," "What Lies Beneath," "Forrest Gump," the "Back to the Future" trilogy) continues his slow, inexorable march into irrelevancy as a filmmaker with his latest foray into computer animation/performance capture, "A Christmas Carol," an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ oft-filmed, holiday-themed, Victorian morality tale (first published in 1843) in collaboration with actor-comedian Jim Carrey in multiple roles. As insipid, uninspired, and unimaginative as Zemeckis’ previous CG efforts, "Beowulf" (released in 2007) and "The Polar Express[/i] (released in 2004), "A Christmas Carol" is an object lesson in what happens when a filmmaker l becomes obsessed with technology at the expense of the human dimension of storytelling.A Christmas Carol has been filmed at least 25 times (not counting Zemeckis’ version). That number, of course, doesn’t include innumerable Christmas-themed TV shows and specials inspired by A Christmas Carol, foreign adaptations, or theatrical adaptations. The earliest cinematic translation dates back almost 100 years (1908). Of the numerous adaptations, the 1951 version (starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge) has been long considered the definitive adaptation of Dickens’ novella. It aired regularly Christmas Eve during the 1970s and 1980s on network television (it’s now available on DVD and Blu-Ray). So the question naturally becomes, why another adaptation and why a computer-animated adaptation? For Zemeckis, the answer was simple: because he could and not because he should (i.e., for a compelling artistic reason).
"Here's a question Mr. Zemeckis can't answer: "Why?"
In case you're unfamiliar (unlikely) with A Christmas Carol or need a refresher (possible, if still unlikely), here's a brief synopsis: A Christmas Carol focuses on Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey, in the first of multiple roles), a curdled, contemptuous, miserable misanthrope and his unlikely journey to redemption on Christmas Eve (circa 1842, Victorian London). He values money (and the accumulation thereof) over people. Scrooge returns every attempt at friendship or compassion with bile and contempt. He’s unloved and unliked, but by choice. Scrooge scoffs at Christmas carolers, declines his nephew Fred’s (Colin Firth) entreaties to join him and Fred’s family for Christmas, rejects pleas to help a local charity, and begrudgingly allowing his long-suffering employee, Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman), a day off to celebrate Christmas.
But just when Scrooge’s soul seems irrevocably, irretrievably lost, his former partner, the seven-years-dead Jacob Marley (Oldman, again), appears on Christmas Eve, rattling chains and admonishing Scrooge to change his miserly ways before it’s too late. Marley warns Scrooge that three spirits will visit him that night, each meant to show Scrooge the errors of his ways. The first, the Ghost of Christmas Past (Carrey, again), a candle-like, mellifluous voiced figure, takes Scrooge back in time, to his semi-unhappy childhood, a beloved sister (his nephew’s mother), his first and only love, and Scrooge’s transformation into the lonely, miserable mise we all know and hate.
The Ghost of Christmas Present (Carrey, once again), a jolly (not green) giant, offers Scrooge a window into his nephew’s party, Bob Cratchit’s poor, but loving family, including Tiny Tim (Oldman, again), optimistic despite a crippling illness and a negligible chance of recovery (let alone survival). But the pain of the present is nothing compared to what awaits Scrooge when the third and last spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (i.e., death personified), shows Scrooge how little he’ll be missed when he departs this world for the next, as well as Tiny Tim’s inevitable demise and Cratchit’s inconsolable grief.
All this, of course, occurs in one night, perhaps in a dream, perhaps in a nightmare, but it transforms Scrooge from a miser to a mensch (to borrow a phrase from Judaism). Zemeckis handles Scrooge’s transformation and redemption credibly, wringing pathos out of a lonely Scrooge singing to himself alone in a classroom as a child or abandoning his one chance at romantic love for a life of comfort and security (and perpetual unhappiness), but Zemeckis converts Dickens’ novella into a conventional Hollywood action-film, adding unnecessarily lengthy chase scenes, flying scenes (and falling-from-the-sky scenes), and a dazzling array of colorful (and muted) backgrounds, care of his army of computer animators to rapidly diminishing returns, and swooping camerawork that becomes increasingly tedious every time Zemeckis goes back to the CG well.
Interested less in storytelling than in technology, Zemeckis has continued to push motion capture performance to new, more expressive levels, but even with Carrey in eccentric mode (e.g., Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Present), Zemeckis fails to solve the seemingly perplexing uncanny valley problem. With the exception of Scrooge, a reed-thin, stoop-shouldered, hook-nosed, sharp-jawed caricature, the other characters either lack texture or definition in their features or suffer from the “dead-eye” problem that critics and moviegoers noticed the first time a character opened his eyes in Zemeckis’ first performance capture effort, The Polar Express. Zemeckis comes close to solving the uncanny valley problem, but still seems a film or two away from resolving it completely.And that’s setting aside whether solving this problem is either a worthy artistic goal or whether it fundamentally wrong from the get go. Then again, maybe computer animators should follow 2D animation’s lead and focus on a different kind of expressiveness, one that values caricature as an expression of character rather than pursues photorealism, regardless of the rationale. And a rationale is exactly what’s missing from Zemeckis’ adaptation of "A Christmas Carol."
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originally posted: 11/06/09 12:00:00