Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is arguably the world’s most famous festive season morality fable, a story of spiritual redemption and rediscovered merriment for misanthrope miser Ebenezer “bah humbug!” Scrooge. Jim Carrey, aided by a thick sheen of CGI profiling, plays the über frugal pernicious protagonist with a splendidly uptight aura. It is his second role as an iconic Christmas party pooper, having pranced about with nefarious super-charged Seuss-channelled vim and vigour in How The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (2000).
My father has always been a parsimonious hoarder, the kind of niggard who happily reuses Christmas cards, stalks the postman in the hope of collecting discarded rubber bands and brews two cups of tea with the one bag. But even he looks like a spendthrift compared to ol’ Scrooge. “Tuppence is tuppence,” Ebenezer grumbles after pilfering coins from the eyes of a corpse. This is before three ghosts – Past, Present and Future – visit and scare the bejesus out of him by delivering a hallucinatory space/time skewing presentation showcasing the unrepentant a-hole he has become.
A Christmas Carol was originally published in 1843. If you’re not familiar with Dickens’s dense description-heavy writing you’ll certainly recognise some of the text’s cultural by-products: Disney’s character Uncle Scrooge, the Bill Murray comedy Scrooged, or, lowering the bar beneath waterline, Matthew Mcconaughey’s Ghosts of Girlfriend’s Past. Directed by prolific studio old hand Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump etc) this revamped 3D version resists drastically altering or re-contextualising the story and follows it to a surprisingly faithful degree, finding innovation not in narrative reinvention but in the slick performance capture visual style Zemeckis finessed in The Polar Express (2004) and Beowulf (2007) albeit to far less impressive ends.
Moody, chilly and unexpectedly dour, this newfangled A Christmas Carol is patiently unravelled with slow moving shots that soak up Zemeckis’s dark, glossily veneered surfaces like a sponge. The opening tracking shot over the rooftops of ye old London is particularly impressive.
Much of the story resonates just as it should: as an intense no-holds-barred presentation of one man’s unremitting bastardry. It will of course have a happy ending, but Ebenezer damn well has to earn it. Though the film is not without its faults, critic David Stratton was right to suggest that this is perhaps the best screen version of the source material yet, but because of the story’s profligacy – there have been more than 60 film and TV adaptations – virtually nobody can credibly make that call.
To balance the film’s many heavy “look what you’ve done!” moments that highlight the consequences of Ebenezer’s misanthropy – such as glimpses of the financial destitution of his loyal employee Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman) and hardships linked to Bob’s son Tiny Tim, gawd luv ‘im – Zemeckis uses spectacular high octane magic carpet style footage of Ebenezer flying between multiple locations and time frames. It’s a good trick, because the film is able to implement dizzying effects-based kicks without sacrificing the seriousness of the source material, but Zemeckis oversteps the mark, particularly in a protected chase scene towards the end during which Ebenezer is reduced to the size of a Honey-I-Shrunk-the-Kid and works his little legs and new-found chipmunk voice into a frenzy.
Marrying genuine Dickensian style with bursts of flighty amusement park SFX is an approach that feels a little gimmicky, like those Christmas cards that play melodies when you open them, but by and large it works well and the film nevertheless conveys deep respect for Dickens’s writing. It is also eye bogglingly handsome, easily one of the best looking features of the year. Up also looked glorious but the level of detail here is stunning – particularly the marks, crevices and blemishes on Ebenezer’s splotchy well-weathered face. See it in 3D. Preferably at IMAX.
A Christmas Carol’s Australian theatrical release date: November 5, 2009