Friday, November 27, 2009

Give Mass-Market Scrooge a Chance

Like blogger and literature professor Michael Leddy, author of the wonderful blog Orange Crate Art, I was disgruntled - nay, downright offended - when Disney brazenly presented its latest holiday project as "Disney's A Christmas Carol," with no mention of Charles Dickens. The gall. The arrogance. The presumption of entitlement, of some kind of right to creative ownership and license all because they've spent decades appropriating and making enormous amounts of money off classic tales. I was annoyed. (Eventually I did find a poster that acknowledged Dickens in tiny print.)

When my kids mentioned wanting to see it today, though, I was surprised to find myself curious and quite willing to go. I was over my initial irritation. When all is said and done, I am incapable of resisting a chance to see a presentation of Dickens' story, one of my all-time favorites. So off we went.

I was impressed. Believe me, I'm as possessive about A Christmas Carol as the next person who holds it near and dear. I was prepared to be dismayed at the over-use of bells-and-whistles, the catering-to-the-lowest-common-denominator type of flashiness, the uncouth departures from the original. But while there is, indeed, plenty of flashiness and reveling in high-speed special effects - I actually got quite motion-sick during all the flying around with the spirits, despite the incredibly beautiful scenery - I don't believe, as many negative reviews have described, that this film has abandoned the soul of Dickens' classic.

I disagree with most of this very critical review, in which reviewer Duane Dudek writes, "In technologically expanding this film, Disney and Remeckis shrank its meaning and spirit." I also disagree with Kirk Honeycutt who writes that Zemeckis "shuns the beating heart of Dickens' story" and that "On any emotional level, it's as cold as Marley's Ghost." My children and I found ourselves emotionally engaged and invested in these characters as interpreted by the astounding Jim Carrey and his colleagues, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Robin Wright Penn, and Lesley Manville, who was a terrific Mrs. Cratchit.

My litmus test for any version of A Christmas Carol is this: is there an ache in my throat and the threat of a small tear or two in my eyes when, having rediscovered the power of being open to joy, Scrooge calls the young boy he sends to the poulterer's at the end "delightful," and when he humbly knocks on his nephew's door for Christmas dinner? The answer tonight was yes. I was still moved at these very moments during the Disney version.

In fact, Zemeckis, to my great relief, stayed quite true to Dickens' text. Most of the dialogue is straight out of the book. He does take some liberties, though, with which I don't agree - the insertion of a high-speed chase involving a hearse drawn by black horses and a mysteriously shrunken Ebenezer being the most jarring and indulgent example. But I was willing to accept those liberties out of appreciation for the work as a whole. Producers and directors do have some license to re-imagine and re-interpret classic works, and I won't hold against them the elements I'm not super-wild about if they show an overall reverence for their source, which I do feel Zemeckis did.

The most impressive aspect of this production for me was the eye-opening use of performance-capture technology in the animation. The Disney folks have always been pretty attentive to the use of true-to-life facial expressions in their animated characters, but now, with motion-capture, they can really go to town - and they did, and it was completely riveting, I thought. Cartoon characters who can actually look as if they're feeling what the story says they're feeling? Now, THAT is amazing.

I have a whole new respect for Jim Carrey as an actor, too, as well as for the creative possibilities of blending human abilities and performances with art and technology. I needed his Scrooge to be at least as good as the Scrooges I've known and loved - Alastair Sim's, George C. Scott's, and the one in my head when I read the book - and I thought Carrey's performance, in combination with the animators' thoughtfully applied talents, was easily up there with the best of them.

I can see why this film is drawing criticism, but I think it should be given a chance to work its own brand of magic. It's visually beautiful, from its views of snowy Victorian London right down to the very realistic knots and whorls in the wood floors and beams. It's creative - I was quite taken by the way the Spirit of Christmas Present showed London to Scrooge through a kind of scrying portal in his own floorboards, and the scene in which this same spirit passes away in the shadow of a great timepiece. It was also dynamic and showy, very much a 21st-century version. But it does respect its literary and cinematic ancestors. The film makes abundantly clear, somewhat ironically, the fact that it's still in Dickens - his language, his characters, his themes, his story - not in Disney, that the glory of this work ultimately lies. As I left the theater with my children, big smiles on our faces and warmth in our hearts, I found that very satisfying.


Elaine Fine said...

The Mr. Magoo version is our family favorite. You can watch it here. It is in eight parts. The music is beautiful, and the acting is wonderful.

Christine said...

I had kinda written off all new Christmas movies and being trashy money-making Hollywood fluff, but your review on this one has me intrigued. Maybe I'll get myself in the holiday spirit tonight by going to the local cheap theater to see it. :) Thanks!

Michael Leddy said...

The Magoo version is only $7.49 at Amazon.

Amazon also has a Disney book, A Christmas Carol: the Book of the Film -- no "Dickens" on the cover, though he's listed as the author.

Alice H. Cash said...

I went to see it last evening and enjoyed it with my 3D glasses quite a bit. I thought it was interested that at the very end they show an old book closing and the cover clearly says "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. I found the flying to be a bit motion-sickness inducing too! My friend that went with me said she thought it was way too violent for kids and it was pretty scary at times!

gcs15 said...

I still love the Patrick Stewart version best of all.

T. said...

Elaine and Michael - thanks for introducing me to Mr. Magoo's version! I hadn't seen it before.

Christine - thanks for stopping by! I hope you enjoy whatever gets you in that holiday spirit.

Alice - The book showed Dickens' name at the beginning, too, when it was being opened, which I was happy about. It IS scary at times, though in the "good" way, i think - the way enjoyable ghost stories around a camp fire can be. I thought this film did a great job of creating that spooky-ness as Scrooge was going up the stairs, then as you heard the clanking of the chains coming closer and closer...

gcs15 - I got the audiobook with Patrick Stewart reading it a couple of years ago. I'm a fan of his as well. Having also been a huge fan of Star Trek: the Next Generation, sometimes I can't help hearing Captain Picard in it...! :)

Qex said...

We watched it at the Clova, a small family run theatre. It was well done, very faithful to the story, but yes - the chase scene with the horses was a bit distracting.

My favourite versions are the one with Alistair Sim, and the Muppets' Christmas Carol (because I do enjoy musicals, and the humour the narrator (gonzo) uses).