Bullied as a poor child, Ebeneezer Scrooge has turned his back on love and become a miserly, mean old man, persecuting his good-hearted clerk Bob Cratchett and his kindly nephew in turn. On the eve of Christmas, in smoggy, lamp-lit, London, he is visited by the ghost of his old business partner Marley, and warned to transform his ways. Scrooge is then visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who show him what he has turned his back upon, how horribly he is viewed by others, and the lonely death that awaits him. He awakes on Christmas morning a changed man, having had his heart melted by Cratchett's young crippled son Tiny Tim, and the shit scared out of him by the hellish Ghost of Christmas Future.
So goes the iconic Christmas tale from the author who was simultaneously England's greatest social critic and the writer of some of our most sentimental nonsense. To that end, Dickens got right to the heart of the Christian message as telegraphed by St Paul: one part tears and mercy; one part hell and brimstone. Accordingly, his books veer between rapier-like, courageous social critique and absurd depictions of innocents and children. The villainous Fascination Fledgby goes hand in hand with the unreal Oliver Twist. The superbly drawn sexual psychodrama of Bradley Headstone stands in contrast with the bizarrely anemic and oddly-motivated John Harmon. Dickens pulls this off because he is a genius.
The sharp contrasts inherent in Dickens can trip up those who try to adapt him for the screen. Oftentimes, a simply crazy and irreverent attitude is best. Thus, you can't not enjoy A MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL and I even have a soft-spot for the Gordon Gekko-transposed Bill Murray vehicle SCROOGED.
By contrast, Robert Zemeckis' new Jim Carrey-CGI extravaganza is far more faithful to the source-text and the popular idea of how Dickens should look. His film is all smoky chimneys, candle-wax and handsome whiskers. You simply can't fault the detail of the design, the texture of every surface, and the believable rendering of human emotion on every face. In general, I loved the production design. Indeed, the only character I thought really didn't work was the Ghost of Christmas Present, partly because of the look of the character, partly because the trick of looking through the floor to new scenes didn't quite get the perspective right, and partly because Jim Carrey voice-work didn't do much for me.
Zemeckis tries to pull off the Dickensian double of horror and twee emotion. Early scenes with a ghostly door-knocker and bells-tolling had little kids squirming and the Ghost of Christmas Future and his Black Riders are absolutely terrifying - and so they should be. Jim Carrey's Scrooge looks genuinely horrified and makes a convincing turnaround. I also liked the fact that after every really scary scene, the movie had some light-hearted physical humour to break the tension. Unfortunately, I thought Zemeckis didn't pull off the emotional scenes. The emphasis was somehow all wrong, especially at the end. Schmaltz requires that we see Scrooge and Tiny Tim gathered round a resplendent turkey. But in this adaptation, we just see Scrooge pack a turkey into a carriage and then head over to his nephew. Zemeckis definitely missed a trick with that one.
Still, even with the failure with the second ghost and the missed-trick on the ending, this could've been, on balance, a rather good film, were it not for Zemeckis' fatal flaw: he just can't resist having his characters whoosh through the skies in 3-D glory. Yes, it looks cool. Yes, the kids might love it. But what on earth has it got to do with Dickens? And why on earth would you spend so much time creating an authentic and textured depiction of Dickensian life only to under-cut the whole thing with some cheap, vulgar, hyper-modern stunts? Poor show.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL is on global release.