Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Carrey Carol

It was take three for Disney and Dickens. We've already examined their Mickey's Christmas Carol, and they distributed The Muppet Christmas Carol. For their third take on Dickens, they enlisted Robert Zemeckis who had turned to using motion capture to create computer-animated films with hyper-realistic motion and detail. (Some find the lifelike production design to be creepy, and hence we have the "uncanny valley" effect: the human eye detecting something as human but not quite.)

Motion capture allows for a small cast to perform all roles. Jim Carrey was able to play Scrooge, not just as an old man, but as a boy, a teenager, and a young man as well. Also, he played all three of the Ghosts. The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present bear a resemblance to Carrey, suggesting that the Ghosts are indeed Scrooge's conscience or "good nature" trying to come back into dominance.

Gary Oldman plays three roles: Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, and Tiny Tim. Colin Firth plays Fred, Bob Hoskins plays Fezziwig and Old Joe, Robin Wright Penn plays Belle and Fan, Cary Elwes (Princess Bride reunion!) plays Dick Wilkins and other bit parts. Only twelve other people were in the cast. A criticism arising right away is that none of the lead cast is British. However, the American cast is able to feign British, Cockney, Irish, and Scottish accents well enough.

The film stays very true to the original Dickens novel, setting out to be what I'll call the "hyper Dickens" version. In promotional materials, the crew insists they tried to tap into Dickens' imagination, though I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. They manage to tell the story very well, but definitely play up the grim parts without a lot of embellishment, though there is some.

The film opens with Marley's burial, and he's shown with two coins over his eyes. After paying the undertaker, Scrooge reclaims these coins before the coffin is sealed, saying "Tuppence is tuppence."

Carrey became famous for his comedy roles, but this doesn't allow for his wacky voiced comedy, so instead, it is worked into physical humor. Scrooge slips and falls humorously when he sees Marley's face on the knocker. The Ghost of Christmas Present "bonks" him on the head. When he "snuffs" the Ghost of Christmas Past, the snuffer shoots skyward like a rocket, taking Scrooge with it before it fades away and he falls back to earth. Even more notably, there is a scene during Christmas Yet To Come in which Scrooge runs away from the Ghost into an alley, where dark forms snatch at him, and he shrinks down to a small size, is chased by a hearse, hurled into the air, hits many icicles, and falls into a bag being carried into Old Joe's. (He speaks in a "pipsqueak voice" during these sequences.)

Most notably, this version plays up the creepy factor. This occurs first when Marley is talking to Scrooge. Marley's jaw breaks off, and he is forced to use his hands to operate his lower jaw before he ties it up again. A ghost outside Scrooge's window suddenly flies at him. The Ghost of Christmas Present dissolves into a laughing skeleton before disappearing, while the forms of Ignorance and Want spring into adults, asking "Are there no prisons?" "Are there no workhouses?" and acting wildly before they are put behind bars and into a straitjacket.

To be honest, when I saw that part, I had to think "You blew it!" Ignorance and Want are supposed to elicit pity and revulsion from the audience. Pity that they are children, and revulsion at what they have become. Suddenly making them insane adults takes away from that.

As for the Future, aside from the aforementioned sequence, the Ghost is seen mainly as a shadow, and when he leaps into three dimensions, he has a skeletal hand. He also opens Scrooge's grave, which shows his coffin glowing red-hot, and forces him into the hole.

I'm not sure that this Carol made the situations that Dickens tried to address clear. We see begging boys who are thrown a piece of meat that a dog steals, but I couldn't help but think that the scene was done to showcase 3D rather than depict the sorry social state of Dickens' London.

A point often neglected in adaptations has been heavily criticized. Scrooge notes public kitchens for people who cannot have a place to cook their meals and wonders why these places are often closed on Sundays, when this is the only day they might be able to dine. Scrooge apparently assumes the Ghost is some God-sent divine manifestation, and the Ghost replies that denying the poor such things is not to blamed on his kith and kin but on those who practice "passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness" in their name. This adaptation has the Ghost call them "these so-called men of the cloth." This has been interpreted as a jab at organized religion. I am not going to comment on this point further.

There are some very fine points. The designs of the characters and locations are well done. The Ghost of Christmas Past is depicted looking almost like a candle with a humanoid body made of wax and a flame for a head, with a gentle Carrey face inside of it. The Ghost of Christmas Present stays mainly inside a room in Scrooge's house, making the floor transparent and flying it over London, so it seems, showing Scrooge scenes of joviality underneath. An interesting take indeed, but something feels much more right when Scrooge is actually standing among the people he is observing.

Overall, there's plenty to like about this Carol. It's well-performed, well-designed, and the story stays very faithful to the book. Yet you can't help but feel that while the makers tried to recreate Dickens aesthetically, they wound up missing the heart narrowly.

No comments: