A 'Carol' for the ages


POSTED: Friday, November 06, 2009

Let's get right to the bottom line, then, shall we: “;A Christmas Carol,”; by Charles Dickens, is simply one of the greatest works of English literature, a profound tale of Christian redemption told within the boundaries of a spook-house; a novella that has done more to shape our impression of the meaning of Christ's birth than any other. It is a tale of man's potential for being larger than himself, whilst at the same time frightening in the extreme as to the implications of our brief sojourn on earth.

It is a staggering, dark work, filled with anger and hope. It is also one that has been revisited so often by Hollywood that the raw edges have been scraped off and all that is left is the warm fuzzies. The story has been mushed for kiddie palates.





        Rated PG

Opens today in theaters


;* ;* ;* ; 1/2




And so, the idea of a “;new”; “;Christmas Carol”; film produced by Walt Disney—as a 3-D animation starring Jim Carrey—doesn't exactly hit the high-expectations meter. After all, Disney's two previous attempts starred Mickey Mouse and the Muppets.

But this new version turns out to be brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. It is, far and away, the best edition of the classic story since “;Scrooge”; with Alastair Sim, nearly 60 years ago.

The reason is simple. Director-writer Robert Zemeckis has returned to the original tale, filmed it faithfully and honestly with all its nuances and language intact, and added some humor and eye-popping 3-D effects. And it's set in a grim, cold, industrialized 1843 England, the streets darkly grimy with coal smoke, the only warm spots being hearth and home—that is, if you can afford it.

After “;Polar Express”; and “;Beowulf,”; this is Zemeckis' latest 3-D effort at re-creating a work of literature for the screen, and this one works on nearly all levels. The animation allows impossible camera moves and effects—essential to the place- and time-shifting aspects of Dickens' tale—as well as provide multiple points of view, analogous to Scrooge's re-examination of his life's arc, the paths it had taken.

The animation aspect is still a little creepy, primarily when it's trying hardest to be realistic. The 3-D aspect is still pretty much a stunt and makes everything look a bit dim, although the somber palette works pretty well in context. If you see it in 2-D, you won't miss much.

That said, the animation and the 3-D are the best I've seen to date.

Zemeckis' best moves are in simple storytelling, in blowing up aspects of the original story to work in the context of film. For example, Dickens wrote of Bob Cratchit:

“;The office was closed in a twinkling, and the clerk, with the long ends of his white comforter dangling below his waist (for he boasted no great-coat), went down a slide on Cornhill, at the end of a lane of boys, twenty times, in honour of its being Christmas Eve, and then ran home to Camden Town as hard as he could pelt, to play at blindman's-bluff.”;

From this Zemeckis creates a furious, joyous set-piece of Cratchit sliding on the dank ice on a cobblestone street, a wordless sequence that not only illuminates Cratchit's nature, but, in comparison, the repressed, prisonlike atmosphere of Scrooge's counting-house.

Other things don't work as well. A bizarre, frightening death-horse chase down London streets, as Scrooge finds himself growing smaller and weaker, goes on far too long. And by far the weakest part of the film is Alan Silvestri's score, the potential for which is wasted on bombastic recasts of Christmas chestnuts.

The advertising for the film gives the impression it's a goofy comedy. It's not. Small children might well be frightened—some adults, too.

That's a good thing, if it leads to self-examination. Or a trip to the library.