I actually liked Robert Zemeckis' new film "A Christmas Carol", which surprised me.
A few years ago, Zemeckis began to use and develop his own motion capture technology. Basically, in motion capture, an actor wears a special suit with pinpoints all over it. A special camera films the live actor as they perform and this is transformed into an animated character. This technology allows the filmmakers to create a more human animated character with more fluid movements. The main advance of Zemecki's work seems to be they are able to use this same technique for facial expressions, allowing the characters to be more emotive and responsive to the action going on, The first film using this new technology, "The Polar Express" starring Tom Hanks in a number of roles, is a strange film. All of the people in the film look like zombies and have soulless eyes. The second film was "Beowulf" and it was a SLIGHT improvement, but not much. Now, we have a new retelling of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" starring Jim Carrey as Scrooge and a number of other characters. A vast improvement.
There are a couple of things at work, contributing to make this film more enjoyable. In the past few years, the use of Digital 3-D has exploded and it seems particularly suited to animated films. Now, some studios will only release an animated film in 3-D. Why? The premium charged for the 3-D glasses helps the box office. And I don't mind paying the premium either, because this new 3-D technology is heads and shoulders above what we are used to. I decided to see "A Christmas Carol" in IMAX 3-D. If I thought regular old Digital 3-D was good, IMAX 3-D is AWESOME. There is a product trailer at the beginning, which makes you feel like you are being transported into the screen. The screen size, enhanced projection and great sound system all work in concert to create an almost immersive experience, exactly what 3-D is trying to accomplish in the first place.
When I initially heard about this film and the use of Zemecki's technique, I as skeptical. I just didn't like "The Polar Express" or "Beowulf" that much. Why is Zemeckis so enamored of this technology? He can have all of the actors on one completely bare soundstage and transport them to Victorian London. It must save a fortune to not have to physically create all of the sets, props, costumes, etc.
But from the first moment of the new film, you feel as though you are being transported to a new time and place. The book opens and we see the first words of the immortal tale and a line drawing before the drawing becomes the film, dropping us next to Scrooge as he inspects the dead body of Jacob Marley, his longtime business partner.
With each new scene, Zemeckis and his team recreate a different part or aspect of Victorian London and they leave no small detail untouched. Some of the scenes look like paintings, but in a good way, lush, beautiful and evocative of a different time and place. Others look dark and foreboding, scary and haunted. These compositions really seem to come to life and help to make the story seem real and authentic.
There are still some problems with this technology. They seem to have fixed the problem with the eyes, but now the characters have this weird look to the faces. For instance, Colin Firth plays Scrooge's nephew, Fred. Fred looks a lot like Colin Firth, but they have given the character a larger chin, a Jay Leno chin. I guess because Scrooge has the same. But the chin makes his face seem odd. Gary Oldman plays Bob Cratchit and he seems to be a short man, shorter than even Gary Oldman is in real life. To accommodate for this, they have made his head more squashed and round than it is. His face still looks like Gary Oldman, just squashed and round. Each of the characters looks like the actor portraying them, with 'make-up' enhancements, but their faces seem to be stretched onto mannequins, a little like examples of plastic surgery gone bad, like the skin is stretched a little too tight. This and the combination of the odd enhancements make most of the characters seem unpleasantly weird.
Because the filmmakers create the exact look and feel of the characters, one actor can play multiple roles. Jim Carrey plays Scrooge as an old man and at different times throughout his life and all three Ghosts of Christmas. Carrey does an excellent job and brings Scrooge to life, making him seem like the most despising miser ever. The film opens with Scrooge visiting his recently deceased partner Jacob Marley at the funeral home. Convinced his partner is dead, he pauses the undertaker and quickly takes the coins resting on Marley's eyes. Seven years later, when he returns home on Christmas Eve, he walks through his dark house, reluctant to light lamps. He gives his assistant, Bob Cratchit, a dressing down for merely looking at a new lump of coal as he shivers uncontrollably at his desk in the cold office. But then you probably know all of this already because I have no doubt you have seen at least one version of this story already.
Carrey has already proven he is an adept comedian, willing and able to do just about anything for a laugh. He has also done some good work in more dramatic roles. In "A Christmas Carol", he does more dramatic work giving a real depth to Scrooge and all of his personal prejudices against the poor, his family, happiness. At one point, there is an extended chase that feels odd, almost as though it has been included to up the comedy level, to ensure Carrey has access to some slapstick.
I find it odd that Carrey is listed as the actor providing the voice for the Ghost of Christmas Present. In the film, this ghost is represented as a semi-opaque black specter, very scary and very much like you would imagine a ghost to be. But this ghost doesn't have a face and I don't think he utters a single word. What exactly did Carrey do to portray this character? Stand and point?
The Ghost of Christmas Past looks the most like Carrey, like the filmmakers used his face and simply pasted it on a flame. The Ghost of Christmas Present looks like a cross between Santa Claus and Jim Carrey. What I am describing to you probably sounds very familiar, again because you have no doubt seen another version of this same story.
Zemeckis and his team have done a great job of making all of the familiar bits of the book look real and they have adapted the book in a way that seems more faithful. For instance, the Ghost of Christmas Future is a scary specter and would give anyone a fright. It actually might be the scariest representation of the ghost I have ever seen. Marley's Ghost is also pretty terrifying and the darkness, the cavernous of Scrooge's lonely, empty home has been brought to life in a way that most film adaptations couldn't even attempt. Strangely, the spaces don't only look real, they seem to have depth.
The depiction of Victorian London, at Christmastime, is really beautiful. Even the dirty, rundown, awful parts they show look like you would imagine Victorian London to be. But the good parts? These moments are what many of us think Christmas should be like. It really puts you in the spirit for Christmas.
Which makes me wonder why Disney released the film so freaking early? November 9th? I know they didn't want to compete with Avatar for 3-D screens, but releasing the film three weeks before Thanksgiving when people just aren't in the mood yet? If I were Disney I would have switched the release dates of "A Christmas Carol" and "The Princess and the Frog". The traditionally animated "Princess" would have already transformed the box office. Instead, "A Christmas Carol"'s box office seems a little miserly.