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A Christmas Carol
Robert Zemeckis' obsession continues.
A Christmas Carol
Jim Carrey Stars in "A Christmas Carol."
OPENING WEEKEND: $27,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $80,000,000
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

June 8th, 2009: Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) begins the Christmas holiday with his usual miserly contempt, barking at his faithful clerk (Gary Oldman) and his cheery nephew (Colin Firth). But when the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come take him on an eye-opening journey revealing truths Old Scrooge is reluctant to face, he must open his heart to undo years of ill will before it's too late.

What to Expect: I confess that I had 100% forgotten about this movie when I went to my list of films to write about and saw this. At first I thought, "Oh, gosh, is someone filming Patrick Stewart's one-man show?" Sadly, it was not to be, and as I read about this film and started remembering its existence, I could only gape in numb horror.

Who keeps giving Robert Zemeckis money to throw at motion-capture animation? What are they thinking? This is his third film of this kind, the first two being "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf." The first barely broke even financially, and that was probably only due to desperate parents with kids on winter holidays. The second didn't even make back half its budget. Both were panned by critics and moviegoers alike. And yet, Zemeckis persists in making films with this technology. He's either deluded or possessed of the kind of optimism that one can only salute in its sheer audacity in the face of repeated smackdowns.

Article continues below

Have you noticed that as computer animation has gotten better and better, Pixar's human characters have become more and more stylized and cartoonish? The humans in Toy Story, for example, weren't rendered all that convincingly but they were clearly going for realism. Then consider the humans in The Incredibles. Stylized, and not realistic-looking, even though the technology to render them had taken great strides. This is because the Pixar folks are smart, and they know about the Uncanny Valley.

This is a very, very important concept to animators, so forgive me if you already know what it is because I'm going to explain it. The Uncanny Valley has to do with how humans respond emotionally to human-looking robots. It's a continuum. We don't respond emotionally at all to a non-humanoid robot, but as you gradually make the robot look more and more human, we start empathizing with it and anthropomorphizing it. We like it better and better the more realistic it looks...up to a point. When the robot becomes very close to human-looking but just off enough so that you can still tell it's not, suddenly our empathy vanishes and we find the robot creepy and unsettling. This sudden dropoff is known as the Uncanny Valley, that netherworld between cute-robot-looking and indistinguishable-from-human wherein we're just uneasy with it.

If you doubt that the motion-capture animated characters in "Polar Express" and "Beowulf" fit this description, note that the Wikipedia article about the Uncanny Valley concept actually cites both of those films as examples. Where more traditional computer animation creates expressions and character motions from whole cloth, motion-capture animation copies the movements of the actors exactly...except that our eyes and brains don't have the same expectations of animated figures as we have of human actors, so when animated figures act like humans, it seems weird to us. This is why I have never liked motion-capture animation, from the old-school 1970s rotoscope animation to those creepy Charles Schwab commercials to this latest obsession of Bob Zemeckis, who once made groundbreaking animation with "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" but now can't let go of this technique that gives you dead-eyed figures that look like they should be on the other end of a Wii nunchuk.

But maybe the technology has improved, right? Maybe this will be the film that lifts it up out of the Uncanny Valley and into a place besides other animation techniques into widespread acceptance, right?

Don't hold your breath. I haven't told you the worst part.

First, this film stars Jim Carrey, who has already ruined one holiday classic in "Grinch." And he's playing about seven roles, just like Tom Hanks did in "Polar Express." It's like Zemeckis decided to conflate the failures of both those films into one giant, epic ball of holiday fail such as the world has never seen before. On top of everything else, Carrey's Scrooge character bears what can only be called a significant resemblance to Count Olaf, the character he (over)played in "A Series of Unfortunate Events." I know it doesn't sound like it, but I'm actually a longtime Carrey fan, but this isn't the first time I've talked about the scent of desperation wafting over his career of late. The blatant pandering to his old-time fanbase of "Yes Man" and his possibly too-much-too-soon attempt to go all edgy and daring with "I Love You, Philip Morris" and now this return to the over-the-top character-Carrey that we all recognize from films like "Mask" and the aforementioned "Series of Unfortunate Events." Truly, I begin to despair.

They have started promoting the hell out of this movie already, mounting lavish holiday-themed exhibitions in Cannes and mounting train tours (wouldn't that have been more appropriate for Polar Express?), but they're promoting it the way you'd promote a new roller coaster at the local Six Flags instead of how you'd promote a movie. The clips and trailers have been very slow in coming, the only look we've seen online has been a 19-second peek into the scene where Scrooge first meets Marley. This footage did have its supporters, but the lion's share of reactions I've seen have been a shuddery "yeeeesh." Now, Harry Knowles (founder and grand high poobah of Ain't it Cool News) did get a longer preview all to himself and then proceeded to drool all over everything, but I don't think it's a secret that Harry gets waaaay too excited about films he wants to like, and his head is turned by star treatment such as he received from Disney.

Oh yeah, Disney. Probably ought to mention them since they're making this movie, and believe it or not, this is Carrey's first time working with them, and Zemeckis' first since Roger Rabbit. It's also no secret that Ed Catmull (who is head of Disney Features Animation) has a total hard-on for 3D animation, although the real cult leader of the 3D revolution is Jeffrey Katzenberg. That being said, DFA isn't producing this film. Zemeckis' own motion-capture animation studio, ImageMovers, is making the film itself, although this studio is co-owned by Disney so it's a bit of six of one, half dozen of the other. The 3D aspect of "A Christmas Carol" is being touted as a step forward in animation technology, and it very well may be, but to me it'd be a better investment to either perfect the motion-capture animation technique to keep it out of the Valley or abandon it before jumping off into 3D. Pixar is moving into 3D, and stop-motion animated "Coraline" had a lot of success with it earlier in the year. I haven't seen how "A Christmas Carol" looks, true, but I have no trouble imagining that if the animation has that creepy dead-eyed look that the previous two films had, putting it into 3D might just make it worse.

It's not like this material has never been seen before. It's been made into over two dozen films and television specials. My personal favorite is the 1984 TV movie starring George C. Scott, but the perennial classic version is the 1951 feature starring Alastair Sim, although the Muppet version definitely has its fans, as does the Bill Murray reimagining "Scrooged." It's such an archetypical story - the grumpy misanthrope learns the value of life and discovers his own humanity - told with such creative elements, ghosts and nighttime journeys and that Victorian London setting, that it's practically part of our English-speaking cultural vocabulary. I cannot imagine anything worse than to have this story, from the pen of one of our language's most revered authors, being played off for Carrey's sight-gags and anachronistic pop-culture references. This fate has already befallen another cultural touchstone, Dr. Seuss's Grinchly tale of Christmas spirit which is, after all, another version of A Christmas Carol itself, and for this to go that direction would just be adding insult to injury.

I don't know if it's actually going to play like that, of course. But I wouldn't be surprised.

A few final notes...let's see, Carrey is playing Scrooge and all three of the ghosts which visit him. Gary Oldman is playing Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim. Wait...Tiny Tim? The little boy? Gary Oldman is 51 years old, a bit long in the tooth to be playing a winsome urchin. Of course the (dubious) magic of motion-capture animation can turn anyone into anyone, although I can't help but wonder what the point is of motion-capture animation if you're not using the body and movements of the actor providing the voice. Colin Firth plays Scrooge's nephew Fred, who tries to draw him out into society with little success, Cary Elwes plays Scrooge's former roommate, and Robin Wright Penn plays Scrooge's deceased sister.

Okay, you heard me say those last two names, right? Cary Elwes and Robin Wright Penn. This is a "Princess Bride" reunion! Those two actors have not shared screen since that deservedly classic Rob Reiner film way back in 1986! And...well, I guess they're not really sharing the screen now, are they? Perhaps their pixels brushed by each other with a wistful glance and an "As you wish..."

I need to get out more.

In Conclusion: Bah. Humbug.

Similar Titles: Beowulf, The Polar Express, How the Grinch Stole Christmas
November 6th, 2009 (wide)

Walt Disney Pictures

Robert Zemeckis

Jim Carrey, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Tom Hanks, Bob Hoskins, Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright Penn

Total: 60 vote(s).

Comedy, Fantasy, Kids & Family

Click here to view site

Rated PG for scary sequences and images.

96 min





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