Review: Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol

Man, it's another The Polar Express and Monster House with those creepy zombie eyed people with the CG mouths that are close but just not quite past the uncanny valley. Plus, aw hell, it's got Jim Carrey in it. This is going to be awful. It's in 3D too? Yeah, it's going to be horrible. I still haven't forgiven Zemeckis for Contact.

These are all the things we said going into the theater. I was cautiously optimistic. The trailers looked promising, but I really hated The Polar Express and I was worried this was going to be another single actor ham fest with unsettlingly real yet not real animation. But it was a free screening at IMAX and it was 3D so why not, right? Halloween is officially over, I can see a Christmas movie.

I'll cut right to it. While I was not blown away, I was really impressed. A Christmas Carol is as charming, spooky, funny, scary, and emotionally charged as I've ever seen it. Up until now my favorite renditions were Patrick Stewart's one man theatrical performance and Scrooged starring Bill Murray. This would rank among my favorite versions of Dickens' classic tale.

The film is done in what's called "performance capture." I've never heard the term until today, but I know what it entails. Unlike movies that create the characters with the computer, performance capture sets a skin over the recorded movements of real actors. It's modern day rotoscoping and while it produces very believable movement in what is obviously a computer animated world, it also creates some barriers.

The first barrier being what I already mentioned, the uncanny valley. The hypothesis of this is basically that the closer robots look and act to humans they reach a point where our emotional response becomes negative and they begin to scare and revolt us. Nothing in robotics is quite human enough to over come this, though some people say there are puppets that can be made to act near human without being creepy. (To me "puppet" and "creepy" can be synonymous.) This carries over into the digital actor world when the technology to capture lifelike movements and reactions and emotions begin to dip way down into this valley and start to unnerve the viewers. Regardless of how lifelike the animation is, people will (so far) be adverse to it. The Polar Express (a Zemeckis movie) was one of these. The people moved like people, but the eyes were wrong, the mouths were off. They seemed like dolls or zombies. There wasn't a spark behind the stares and the smiles were heinous grimaces doing not much more than baring oddly gapped teeth.

Carol is able to get past that for the most part. I won't lie and say it's perfect, but the main characters are without the vacant quality Express had. The side characters and street people still showed signs of this and likely only because they didn't have the man hours at the computer to bring them to as much life as Scrooge, Cratchit and the spirits.

The second barrier is one that may not be avoidable with this type of animation. The designers and directors work so hard on making Victorian London believable and real that they designed themselves right out of some of the more fantastical abilities inherent to computer animation. There's not much in the way of lightsabers or heavy blasters or ancient goddesses in A Christmas Carol but there is a whimsical aspect to the spirits and the times they show Ebenezer. In one part of his past, a dance is held and his old boss, Mr. Fezziwig, and his wife cavort and careen around the makeshift dance hall in odd, jerky movements. Their jumps linger, purposefully, too long and at one point Mrs. Fezziwig pirouettes herself into the air like a helicopter. Now, it's one thing when the candle-head spirit of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on a hair raising flight through snow covered fields, but when real people suddenly move like fairies, it can make you suddenly feel again like you're watching something that's not quite right.

However, all in all the animation is top quality and the design altogether was remarkable. We walk through Ebenezer's home in the evening and true to form in late 1800's London, there's no electricity or central heating. His large house is cold and dark and at times the only light is his small candle and the only sound is his breathing and the creek of stairs. The character's breath seen in the cold is just the right visibility. The clothing drapes and moves realistically and without the stretching skin quality seen in early and dodgy CG attempts.

The spirits (all voiced by Carrey) were true to the original story and completely brought to life. Everyone who went to the showing came away with a favorite and each specter (including the last) had qualities than made them enjoyable to watch on screen but also of which to be afraid. They were frightful in the way they were intended to be, not because of an emotional attachment to their animation. They were well executed if not, at times, a little gratuitous.

And finally Jim Carrey's performance was quality. This was like watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or even Ace Ventura: Pet Detective again. It was nice remembering that despite some of the crap work Carrey has done (and let's face it, most actors do crap work from time to time) his Scrooge was a wholly enjoyable and well put together performance. Despite some of the trademarks of performance capture (that animates the characters to look like the actors) Scrooge was superb and almost never did I think "That's Jim Carrey doing that." Later in the film as Scrooge becomes more light-hearted, you can see Carrey's face in Scrooge and it does pull you out a little. Up until then the hawk nose and plow chin Scrooge was his own man and not one driven by a comedic actor.

The other actors were obvious and for the most part it did not hurt the story to have them so any more than if it were a live action telling, which in the end is the highest praise a movie like this can earn.

If you have little ones, this is not the movie for you. Rent the Muppet version and be done with it. Zemeckis's version is every bit as creepy and at some points down right frightening as the original could be.

God bless us, every one.

No comments: