A Christmas Carol
This is another exception to the rule (see The Bad News Bears) that it’s always a bad idea to remake a classic. “A Christmas Carol” is one of the greatest stories of all time. It can withstand a new directorial hand. It might even be a good idea to remake it every twenty years or so, because so many kids won’t look at anything more than ten years old, and they really should see this story. All I ask is that there be minimal tinkering. Don’t try in any way to “improve” the story. It can’t be done.
Robert Zemeckis, the zealot of motion-capture CGI animation (The Polar Express, Beowulf) has followed that rule. I have seen this story so many times, in so many versions, that I know many lines of dialog by heart. They were first lifted directly from the Dickens story, and no remake worth its salt would try to improve on them:
“Are there no prisons? And the union workhouses? Are they still in operation? I was afraid from what you said at first that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course.”
“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
“Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner? Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there — Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?”
“It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
All these lines, and many more, are here in this newest version. And that’s good, because you really don’t want to mess with this story. I don’t say that in a metaphorical way; I mean that I may personally drop by your house, Mr. Zemeckis, puncture all your inflatable yard Santas, and set your wassail on fire. So watch it.
The one scene that was added was at the very first. Scrooge very reluctantly pays for Marley’s funeral … and then plucks the pennies off the dead man’s eyes. “Tuppence is tuppence,” he says, and I liked it, because it was appalling and perfectly in character.
CGI motion capture enables Jim Carrey to play not only Scrooge at four stages of his life, but Marley’s Ghost and all three spirits. I have to say he does a good job of them all, but I’m a little surprised he didn’t also play Bob Cratchit, Fezziwig, the prize turkey, and Tiny Tim and his crutch. The look of the film is marvelous. I suppose a time will come when I stop being amazed at the sheer detail they can put into CGI these days, but it hasn’t happened yet. And CGI, at its best, is also very good at giving the director complete freedom to choose his shots. Things that would have taken huge amounts of labor or would not have been possible at all are easily achieved in the computer. Zemeckis often uses this to good effect.
So now we come to my one beef, and it’s a simple one: That goddam 3D. We did not see the 3D version—I guess we’re going to have to spring for the extra money one of these days, as more and more pictures come in a 3D version with this new process, but I don’t expect to be impressed. I’ve seen 3D. I remain convinced that it’s a gimmick. And movie after movie proves my point, because watching the 2D version it was glaringly obvious—as it has been, so far, in all 3D movies—that it was made for 3D. Things are forever leaping out at you. Fingers and other objects point such that you know they are extending into the theater in the 3D version. This, I submit to you, is puerile. It is distracting. It is … boring.
The other thing we inevitably get in a 3D movie is the roller coaster ride. This is not always bad, but it usually is, because it is obvious that the ride has been inserted merely to exploit the technology. When a movie is driven by technology first and story second, story suffers, and in the end, it is really all about story.
Case in point: A Christmas Carol opens with an aerial roller coaster ride above London and through its busy streets. This is okay with me; it sets the scene nicely. That’s one. When the Spirit of Christmas Past appears (a very nice effect, an androgynous being who resembles a candle), the two of them go zooming through time and over a snowy landscape to revisit Scrooge’s past. This is okay, too, I didn’t mind it. But that’s two. The spirit is carrying a candle snuffer. When Scrooge attempts to snuff it out, he is taken on a rocket trip far, far into the air. Zoom, zoom, zoom. Well, all right, that wasn’t too bad, though it was totally unnecessary. That’s three. When the Spirit of Christmas Present appears (when I was a child, I thought he was the Spirit of Christmas Presents), we go zoom, zoom, zooming again, as the floor of Scrooge’s house becomes transparent, like a glass-bottom boat. It’s the least interesting of the choices Zemeckis made, and it’s number four, and I’m beginning to get annoyed. And, of course, we’re still not finished. For most of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come’s time on the stage, we never stop zooming around, including an extended and by now quite boring sequence where Scrooge is tossed, willy-nilly, all over the goddam town, and I’m really starting to grumble, “Bah, humbug!” That’s five, six, and maybe seven, and I say the hell with it. When, and if, somebody makes a grown-up movie in 3D, a movie that takes 3D in its stride, like Dial M For Murder (yes, it was originally 3D), instead of continually shouting “Hey, Daddy, look at me, look at me!” … well, I might start to take it seriously. But I don’t see it happening.
Other than that rather large objection, I thought it was a pretty good movie.