A Christmas Carol review

Robert Zemeckis. Jim Carrey. The Charles Dickens classic tale. But A Christmas Carol might not be the take on the story you're expecting...

Earlier in the year, eyebrows were raised when Sam Raimi’s return to the horror genre, Drag Me To Hell, was awarded a PG-13 certificate in the US. How on earth, after all, could a good, old-fashioned horror movie get such a ‘young’ certificate, particularly a Sam Raimi horror movie at that?

Those eyebrow-raisers would, however, do well to note that Robert Zemeckis has now topped this. In adapting Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol into a festive Disney film, he’s managed to put together one of the most scary family films in a long, long time. And it’s sat there with a PG rating too.

Zemeckis has long insisted that his take on A Christmas Carol would remain true to the book, and in capturing a dark, moody Dickensian London, he’s proven as good as his word. Using the performance capture techniques that he’s pioneered across The Polar Express and Beowulf, here he utilises the technology to spend 75 minutes stripping the character of Ebenezer Scrooge down to his bare bones, and pretty much dragging him to the doors of hell before the surprisingly brief redemptive ending. A more marked departure from The Polar Express (even accepting the dark avenues of that tale) you’d genuinely struggle to find.

There’s little point recapping the story of A Christmas Carol here, given that virtually everyone reading this is likely to be very, very familiar with it. But if you’ve been schooled on The Muppets/Black Adder/Bill Murray/Alistair Sim, this new version is quite a different beast. The opening of the film, for instance, commences in a very Disney way with a storybook opening and us being pulled into the pages as the covers open. Yet, the first shot proper turns out to be a still image of Jacob Marley’s corpse. It’s a terrific shot, and one of many in the film that makes you feel that 3D technology on the big screen might have a big future to it after all. It also sets the tone very much for what’s to come.

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For don’t be fooled by the casting of Jim Carrey in numerous roles here. There’s barely a scrap of comedy to be found here, and from the off, it’s a dark, foreboding sense that takes hold. Furthermore, Carrey’s digital performance, save for a jape or two near the end, can comfortably be filed amongst his dramatic body of work, rather than comedic.

The conventional business of establishing Scrooge as a miser-and-a-half is effectively got out of the way, and from the moment Ebeneezer arrives home on a fateful Christmas Eve, Zemeckis unleashes a box of tricks that any horror director would be proud of. Eerie silences, creaking floorboards, superb use of volume fluctuations and a couple of genuine jumps are packaged in, and you really do have to stop every now and then and remind yourself that there was a Disney logo at the start. By the time the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come appears, you can’t help but feel that the younger members of the audience are likely to be quaking in their seats. And a few adults, too.

It really helps that Zemeckis is not only utterly on top of this technological toolkit here, but he also chooses how to use it for very good effect. He gets his camera in places where it’d be borderline impossible to go with live action, be it a point of view shot from behind a doorknob or the inner workings of Big Ben, and his freedom of perspective is very well employed. And when he suddenly slams the accelerator down and sends us shooting across the sky, it’s grip-your-armrests good.

Whatever your take on the scarier elements of A Christmas Carol, however, the film has a few more conventional issues to contend with. Zemeckis does his damnedest to move his film along and overcome the fact that the story is easily one of the most familiar he could film, but he can’t quite beat the lack of narrative surprise. Even though the film runs to just north of 90 minutes, the result is that there are moments where you’d be happy if it’d just jolly things along a little quicker. Also, the choice of a candle as the Ghost Of Christmas Past didn’t really seem to work as well as the rest of the film, not helped by dialogue that’s tricky to make out some of the time.

But this is still really very impressive, surprisingly dark cinema. And as you might expect from the trailers, the visuals themselves are absolutely stunning. Zemeckis and his team have recreated London with astounding flair, right down to the minutiae of the characters milling around in the background. The fluidity of Zemeckis’ camera allows him to spend some time exploring too, before settling down to utter stillness when required. Whatever the camera is doing, though, the material it’s pointing at is glistening with detail.

It’s not utterly non-Disney, too. There are a good three or four sequences here that could happily translate into fairground rides, and the odd almost concessionary sequence such as when Scrooge finds himself – Marty McFly-like! – holding on to the back of a carriage to slide to where he wants to get to. Plus you get virtual Bob Hoskins doing a startling Michael Flatley impression. That’s not to be sniffed at.

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But then, with rotting corpses, a straitjacket, quite terrifying red-eyed beasts chasing Scrooge around London and many moments of very unnerving stillness, this is still a family-branded film that’s likely to ensure that the anklebiters don’t even think of putting a foot wrong for a good week after seeing it. That said, for long periods A Christmas Carol is a terrific movie, and perhaps the best tonal yardstick for it is if a youngster got through Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban without too much fear, then this should be okay too. I strongly suspect though that the surprisingly dark tone here is going to result in a swathe of negative reviews.

And that’d be a pity. Closer in feel to something like the director’s own What Lies Beneath than The Polar Express, but better than both of them, A Christmas Carol is a genuinely impressive, risky piece of cinema, and at times a quite brilliant spectacle.

In many ways, it’s a very unexpected, and memorable, treat. Even if it’s not quite what you think you’re going to get when that Disney logo fires up at the start.

See also:Interview with Robert ZemeckisColin Firth on using performance capture technology


4 out of 5