Writer-director Robert Zemeckis wisely chose the most unquenchable of stories for his technological marvel. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, already filmed with everyone from Michael Caine to Patrick Stewart, George C. Scott, Vanessa Williams, and Mr. Magoo in the role of the skinflint who learns to give, can hold its own even surrounded by the most dazzling of special effects.
I actually gasped at one moment as the camera flew over London. It was not just that the Victorian setting was so meticulously created, though I plan to go back just to revel in the details. It was that I had never before seen a camera move so fluidly through so many different vantage points in the midst of a convincingly immersive 3D experience. It evokes a visceral sense of buoyant jubilation and freedom that immediately connects us to the movie’s setting, making us feel completely present in the story as it unfolds.
We meet Ebeneezer Scrooge (voice of Jim Carrey) as he is bidding farewell to his partner, Jacob Marley, now laid out in his coffin. Scrooge literally removes the coins from Marley’s eyes. It may be a custom, but money is money. Seven years later, Scrooge is well into his bah, humbug mode, turning down a Christmas dinner offer from his nephew Fred (voice of Colin Firth), turning down a charitable donation, and grudgingly agreeing to allow his poor clerk Bob Cratchit (voice of Gary Oldman) a day off to celebrate with his family. Scrooge goes home to eat his gruel by himself when, in one of the film’s most thrilling effects, Marley’s flickering greenish ghost appears, heaving the heavy weights he bears through the door ahead of him. As we all well know, he is there to announced that Scrooge will be visited by three spirits who will teach him about Christmas past, present, and yet to come.
Our familiarity with the story is an anchor in the sea of new visual stimuli, and it keeps our focus on what is happening to the characters, even when the technology goes slightly askew. Zemeckis said that the good news about making a motion capture film is that you can do anything. Whatever you imagine can be realized. But, he added, the bad news is that you have to do everything. The blank screen is there and every single detail, every button on every coat, every log in every fire, every reflection, shadow, and snowflake have to be separately created in three dimensions and designed to interact with every other element we see. Some of the figures are more solidly created while others seem a bit stiff and rubbery. Firth’s Fred is particularly awkward. Some of the scenes are hyper-realistic while others, like a dance at the Fezziwig’s Christmas party, play with space and weight, not always in aid of the story. It gets too frantic, especially during a non-Dickensian insert of a chase scene that has Scrooge shrinking like Alice in Wonderland. The decision to double up on voices (Carrey plays all three spirits, Oldman plays Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and Marley and Robin Wright Penn plays both Scrooge’s sister and his girlfriend) is distracting and occasionally confusing.
But oh, there is a visual sumptuousness here to rival even the merriest Christmas celebration. Scrooge’s flights through time, the glorious bounty of the Ghost of Christmas Present, the Victorian streets, the costumes, the warmth of the fire, the magic of Scrooge’s first dance with Belle — make this an instantly indispensable classic. It’s all there, Scrooge’s bitter loneliness to his thrilling giddy-as-a-schoolboy realization that he can change, and that the power of giving is greater than any power of having. And for the people who gave us this great gift, God bless them everyone.