Movie Review – A Christmas Carol (2009)

Flat, aloof retelling of the Dickens classic, director Robert Zemeckis tries his utmost at giving us a grand, stylish film: he partially succeeds due to the brilliance of the CGI visuals. The film, a literal translation from page to screen, lacks something critical to its success: heart. For all the visual brilliance, the film is turgid and lacklustre.


– Summary –

Director : Robert Zemeckis
Cast : Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Robin Wright Penn, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, Carey Elwes.
Year of Release : 2009
Length : 120 Minutes
Synopsis: Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by three ghostly apparitions on Christmas Eve, to let him know just how much of a hated man he is.
Review : Flat, aloof retelling of the Dickens classic, director Robert Zemeckis tries his utmost at giving us a grand, stylish film: he partially succeeds due to the brilliance of the CGI visuals. The film, a literal translation from page to screen, lacks something critical to its success: heart. For all the visual brilliance, the film is turgid and lacklustre.


Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture venture continued (after The Polar Express and Beowulf) with this CGI take on Dickens’ classic tale, starring Jim Carrey and Gary Oldman, among others. For some reason, the story of Scrooge and his ghostly visits is still tapped by filmmakers for the cinematic treatment, and I, for one, am over it. Why this story continues to fascinate people is beyond me. It’s a dirge of a story, and one that fails to elicit emotion in me save for the last few moments, when central character finally resolves his personal issues. Generally, though, every incarnation of A Christmas Carol (with the exception of the Muppet version) has left me cold. I doubted the Zemeckis performance-capture version would manage to do justice to Dickens’ classic story, mainly because the emotional weight of CGI humans from his past efforts (Polar Express, Beowulf) lacked true resonance with the audience.

You wouldn’t believe how much work went into this shot…

Look, for the three people who don’t know the story of A Christmas Carol, here’s the short version. Old dude with a bad attitude is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve, in order to teach him how poorly he’s lived his life and affected those around him. In the end, he realises his mistakes and sets out to rectify the wrongs he has done. There’s also a small crippled kid involved,  because we all know that kids make people go awww a lot, and in a story of tragedy it’s a sure-fire way of making people cry. It’s the epic story of the discovery of the Christmas Spirit.

The old guy, Scrooge (performed here by Jim Carrey) is a nasty piece of work. He’s snappy, lonely and bitter; a twisted soul in dire need of an emotional enema. His family have pretty much disowned him, his business is hanging on by a thread, and his cold, lonely existence is one of London society’s laughing stocks. Scrooge isn’t a pleasant man, but as we learn through the film, it wasn’t always that way. Set in 1860’s London, Scrooge is the last of a trio of business partners still running their money-lending firm; the Marley brothers have died, leaving Scrooge in charge. As the film progresses, we learn that Scrooge once had a girlfriend, a girl who offered to love him forever, a girl whom Scrooge turned his back to in order to accumulate wealth. The time honoured story of money, the gain and empty promise of a vast fortune, is the central pivot to the story of Scrooge and his apparitional visitors, and Robert Zemeckis has decided not to deviate at all from the text of Dickens story. It’s a faithful adaptation of the Carol story, brought to life by the ImageMovers CGI guys and a bunch of computers.

Ohhhh, a flashback…

Since I don’t really like the story anyway, this version of A Christmas Carol was always going to be an uphill battle to win my affections. Actually, less a hill, more of a mountain – this film has a big job to be vaguely interesting. The CGI notwithstanding, A Christmas Carol plays out exactly as it should, the requisite emotional twists and turns occurring with the accuracy of an atomic clock – it’s predictable, perhaps the major downside to a film based on one of the worlds most famous stories. I was looking, nay hoping, for some sort of new slant on the story, some kind of energising of what is, essentially, a depressing look into a broken man’s soul for an hour and a half. There isn’t one – the only thing interesting here are the admittedly impressive visuals, as Zemeckis and his team bring to startlingly detailed life the style and look of Victorian era London.

Does anybody want some leftover bread?

While the story struggles to find traction in amongst the look-at-me 3d visuals (I saw this film in bog-standard 2D) and obvious stunt animation designed to impress the kidlings among us, the actual CGI world inhabited by Carrey, Oldman et al, is pretty sweet looking. The design of this film is superb, from the landscapes and fog-covered London skyline, to the dank, dirty poverty row within London’s lower class. It’s the kind of thing Pixar and Dreamworks have been doing for ages, and now Zemeckis is at the same level. Pity ImageMovers is now defunct. Oh well. The animation is spectacular, if a little self-absorbed, and many purists to this story will find the overtly 3D-ised visuals somewhat distracting from the story – a story already lacking a modern connection to draw us in.

The cast, Carrey aside, all struggle under the confines of the infinite world of the performance capture stage – Robin Wright Penn, who appeared in Zemeckis’ Beowulf, does double duty as both Scrooge’s fiancee Belle, and and Scrooge’s sister elsewhere in the film. Gary Oldman, a man of inordinate acting ability, does his best as Bob Cratchit, one of the Marley Brothers, and even impish Tiny Tim, a trio of performances left down by soulless animated production – the kind of empty humanity we saw in The Polar Express. The rest of the cast, including Bob Hoskins and Carey Elwes, all perform multiple roles to limited effect, reliant less on their performance and more on the CGI dude animating it later. It’s all style and very little substance. The digital trickery on display overwhelms the characters, the story, and the point.

God bless you, you wrinkly old bastard!

It’s soulless, bereft of genuine emotional weight and filled to the brim with the kind of digital trickery Zemeckis has let infect his recent output – from the man who gave us wonderful films like Back To The Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Cast Away, this latest re-imagining of the classic Dickens story feels like they were trying too hard to be too clever. It’s a slow moving, decidedly adult-toned rendition of one of the holidays seasons most inelegant narratives, and this film doesn’t feel like Christmas at all.


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2 thoughts on “Movie Review – A Christmas Carol (2009)

  1. Cheers Al. Hopefully the seasonal drinks will include something to wipe the memory of this debacle from your mind!! Have a merry Christmas!!!

  2. i felt EXACTLY the same, word for word, about this version of Scrooge, 'cept i never would've been able to express it as clearly as you have. One giant freaking DITTO.

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