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A Christmas Carol incorporates reason-for-the-season songs into this new 3-D adaptation of Dickens’ classic tale.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
most surprising thing about Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol is
not the lavish visual spectacle of the visitations of the Christmas spirits and
Scrooge’s visions of the past, present and future, nor the loopy roller-coaster
departures from the text.
Nor is it Jim Carrey’s fine vocal
and physical performance as the original Grinch, Ebenezer Scrooge, transferred
by the magic of performance-capture technology to the impossibly gaunt Scrooge.
It’s not even the remarkable
fidelity to Charles Dickens’ dialogue, ranking among the most faithful
big-screen adaptations of the tale — though, as surprises go, that’s a close
The most surprising thing, arguably,
is the soundtrack. Not the official track listing offered by Walt Disney
Records: a lineup of themes, composed by Alan Silvestri, inspired by episodes
from the story (“Flight to Fezziwigs,” “Who Was That Lying Dead?” etc.). I mean
the actual songs sung and played throughout the film. It’s A
Carol with actual Christmas carols: “Venite, Adoremus/O Come All Ye
Faithful,” “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “Joy to the World.”
It’s almost a shock to hear the
words “Christ the Savior is born” in a big-budget Hollywood movie today, even a
time-honored period piece like A Christmas Carol.
Only five years ago, Zemeckis’ own The Polar Express
rang with “Silver Bells” and “Deck the Halls,” but not so much as a “rum pa pum
pum” from the stable at Bethlehem.
“A Christmas movie too
chickenhearted to mention Jesus,” wrote Boston Globe critic
Ty Burr at the time. He was talking about Hollywood’s other 2004 holiday
offering, Christmas With the Kranks, but what
difference does it make? He could have been talking about practically any
recent Hollywood Christmas offering short of The Nativity Story,
including Carrey’s own Grinch movie.
Now Zemeckis and Carrey have given
us a Christmas movie that’s actually aware of the reason for the season, that
doesn’t reduce street carolers to crooning “O Tannenbaum” and “The Twelve Days
Even in the score, if I remember
correctly, are strains of “Good King Wenceslas” and “God Rest Ye Merry
Gentlemen” (though at times arranged for action-movie tension). Musically
speaking, it might just be the most Christmas-y Christmas
The story, of course, is still
Dickens’ secular Christmas fable, the grandfather of all secular Christmas
redemption stories, from the sublime (It’s a Wonderful Life)
to the subpar (The Santa Clause).
Despite a few nods to the Christian
story, Dickens’ story is not a work of Christian imagination. (Nods that make
it into the film include Tiny Tim’s Christmas hope of being seen in church as a
reminder of the one “who made lame beggars walk and blind men see,” and the
Ghost of Christmas Present’s reference to his 1,800-plus “brothers,” i.e.,
Christmases past since the birth of Christ.)
But G.K. Chesterton argued that A
Christmas Carol was a work deeply influenced by Christian
imagination, and a “great defense of Christmas” — a claim that seems more
apropos than ever in these Scrooge-like times, when even snowmen and snowflakes
have been casualties in the war on Christmas. (See my essay “Joy to the World: A
Christmas Carol and the Attack on — and Defense of — Christmas” at
DecentFilms.com for more.)
In these days of persistent
population fears, when only a few weeks ago an essay in The
Guardian talked about the relative environmental benefit of
“culling” Americans vs. Bangladeshis, the inclusion of Scrooge’s acerbic line
about “decreasing the surplus population” — a line thrown back in his face
later in the story, with a startling Zemeckian twist — is practically a heroic
act of cultural resistance.
Which isn’t to say that Zemeckis’
film is always equally heroic, particularly when it comes to the gratuitous action
and slapstick set pieces. I don’t object to Scrooge’s wild ride above London
rooftops and over the river and through the woods with the Ghost of Christmas
Past — that makes sense in context — but there’s no point to the subsequent
rocket shot, in which Scrooge is blasted into the stratosphere and goes sailing
past the moon like E.T. and Elliot on their bike.
Nor am I crazy about the Ghost of
Christmas Past’s appearance as an animated candle flame (why?) or Carrey’s
whispery, brogue-inflected voicing of the character — though, in general, the
casting of Carrey as all three Christmas spirits as well as Scrooge makes
I do like Marley’s ghost (Gary
Oldman), floating weightless above the floor but held down by chains (you can
see them go all the way around right through his body) and heavy blocks — yes,
and his alarmingly sagging lower jaw, straight out of Dickens.
Perhaps the most visually brilliant
sequence is the visitation of the Ghost of Christmas Present, in which Scrooge
never actually leaves his house but is nevertheless given what the Ghost
himself calls a “heavenly” perspective, via what filmmakers call a “God shot”
(i.e., from overhead), on the Cratchit household.
The depiction of the Ghost of
Christmas Yet to Come is almost restrained in its minimalism — but the third
act is marred by the most egregious excursion into irrelevant excitement as
Scrooge is reduced to a few inches tall (why? so that Carrey’s voice can be
digitally ratcheted up to chipmunk territory?) and chased down dark cobbled
alleys and across icy shingles, pursued by a frightening death carriage. (That
scene, and Marley’s appalling visitation, are the two bits most likely to
traumatize young viewers.)
Performance capture has improved
since The Polar Express; Scrooge himself works
wonderfully, though some characters still look like animatronic mannequins, and
Tiny Tim in particular is a mascot rather than a breathing character.
Carrey is persuasive as the miserly
Scrooge, but doesn’t manage the transformation of the redeemed Ebenezer. His
virtual Scrooge is clearly haunted by the ghost of Alistair Sim — a sim Sim, as
it were — with flashes of Carrey mugging not out of place in the redeemed
Scrooge’s giddy merriment.
in the end, this Christmas
Carol still feels in a way more
like a theme-park ride than an emotionally satisfying drama — sort of like
riding “Peter Pan’s Flight” at Disney World, as opposed to watching Peter Pan —
I’m not sure I really mind. The story is robust enough to survive the
theme-park treatment, and, for the most part, it’s a very good ride, with a
welcome note of real Christmas-caroling spirit.
Zemeckis’ beloved performance capture can ever move beyond theme-park rides
remains to be seen.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor
and chief critic at
Content advisory: Moderate
spooky and frightening images; a rude expression or two. Too much for sensitive