Arguably the 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 second.
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 Christmas 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 of Christmas.”
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 Carol yet.
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 artistic sense.
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.
If, 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.
Whether Zemeckis’ beloved performance capture can ever move beyond theme-park rides remains to be seen.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor
and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.
Content advisory: Moderate spooky and frightening images; a rude expression or two. Too much for sensitive youngsters.