by Scott Mendelson
A Christmas Carol is, above all else, an astounding visual experience. Other studios either use 3D to enhance already superior films or attempt to hide mediocrity. Robert Zemeckis stands nearly alone is using this newfangled version of old-fashioned technology to push the boundaries of 'immersion'. Like The Polar Express in 2004 and Beowulf in 2007, A Christmas Carol is not simply a movie to be seen, but rather to experience. If the film is not as haunting and thrilling as Beowulf or as intoxicating as Henry Selick's more surreal Coraline, this still sets new marks for realism in the painted world. Zemeckis's artists and performers have partnered stunningly lifelike animation (there are no 'dead eyes' this time) with at once astonishing and invisible 3D effects work, creating the illusion of living inside a movie better than anything I've yet experienced.
A token amount of plot - Ebeneezer Scrooge finds himself alone and unloved on Christmas Eve. His fears of poverty having turned into an obsession with material worth, he finds no joy in his fortunes or the few that still associate with him. However, fate has intervened, as the ghost of his former partner has returned with a warning. Three ghosts will arrive and offer Scrooge a chance to reevaluate the choices that he has made and the choices that he still has yet to make. If you don't know what happens next, I'm certainly not going to spoil it for you. The story of Scrooge and his three ghosts have been told countless times in countless ways (oddly enough, one of the best versions remains A Muppet Christmas Carol, with a stunningly good performance from Michael Cane as the famous miser). What's most surprising about this new version is how faithful it is to the original novel, both in plot and in tone. Much of the dialogue is taken straight from the mouth of Charles Dickens, and the tone is one of foreboding, despair, and occasional terror. Antics are kept to a minimum and there are several scenes of nothing more than two characters conversing and several moments containing that most rare thing in animation - pure silence.
Parents of very young children are warned, this is not The Grinch. This is a somber and thoughtful movie that uses its technology to heighten the fantastical nature of Scrooge's journey. The movie is rated PG for a reason, so don't complain when your easily-traumatized three-year old freaks out when Marley and his chains make their loud and imposing entrance. Technology aside, the movie is splendidly acted. Jim Carrey uses the motion-capture technology to give one of his very best performances (he hasn't been this good since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Playing Scrooge in several stages of life as well as the three ghosts, Carrey doesn't purely rely on his physical shtick or his famous foolery, instead using special effects to compliment his work. Carrey disappears into the fantastical character and paints a portrait of a sad, angry and lonely man. His Scrooge is not the least bit funny and the occasional pratfall or high-flying antic is rarely played for laughs. Gary Oldman plays Bob Cratchit (as well as Marley and Tiny Tim), and it's still shocking to see him once again playing a paragon of virtue and kindness. Bob Hoskins, Cary Elwes, Colin Firth, and Robin Wright Penn all shine in brief supporting turns.
If the film has a major flaw, it is one of pacing. The first thirty-minutes are nearly perfect in establishing character, tone, and context. Then, the first two 'ghost-trips' hurtle by at an accelerated pace while the ghost of Christmas future segment unfurls endless copious dark torment and gratuitously long chase scenes (it is only in these moments that the 3D feels like a gimmick). The first two segments barely touch on the issues at hand (just why does Scrooge immediately care about the medical plight of Tiny Tim?) while the final visit seems to drag on forever. As a result, the famous finale comes off as little more than an afterthought.
But A Christmas Carol works more often than it does not, with an uncommonly strong opening act giving way to a flawed but engaging middle and end. So while the film lacks the sheer surprise factor of The Polar Express 3D and isn't nearly as good a movie as Beowulf, A Christmas Carol finally establishes the limitless possibilities of Zemeckis's particular brand of motion-capture technology. It is a wonderfully lifelike and immersive 3D experience that happens to be housed within a very well-acted and well-written movie. And to those who say it's too scary for kids, I say 'bah, humbug!'.