A motion-captured Christmas
Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol (2009) opens with a beautifully textured leatherbound book, a watercolor illustration that morphs slowly into a horrifyingly textured image of the deceased Marley, cloth binding his jaw shut, pennies covering his eyes.
Enter Scrooge (Jim Carrey), checking Marley for signs of life. When the undertakers put out an outstretched hand for tips, Carrey plays up Scrooge's tightfistedness to the hilt; you would think he was extracting a back molar from out of his jaw the way his fingers trembled, as he extracted coins out of his purse. There's an even better bit later when Scrooge encounters a band of singing carolers--they continue singing as he passes, albeit at a softer key.
Moments like these make you want to pull for Zemeckis' adaptation; when he uses 3-D in these opening scenes he uses it chastely, as a way to add depth to digitally rendered animation (things stick out at you from the screen, but not intrusively). One can see the advantage of combining the two techniques: 3-D gives the images roundedness and solidity, the images give the 3-D rendering emotionally evocative material to incarnate. Even the Marley doorknob is vividly realized, with its hair wavering about in an eerie green glow, like floating seaweed; one completely understands Scrooge's trepidation at approaching the thing.
About the time when Marley's ghost appears the animation starts going wrong. Marley swings his chained cashboxes like some superstrong comic-book hero; when he howls it's not the howl of the eternally damned but of the digitally enhanced--you don't feel the otherworldliness of the specter, only the coolness of the effect. What's missing, what has just been lost, is the stillness, the airlessness, the sense of things trapped for years in stone tombs--what we have instead is your standard-issue CGI apparition, leaping at the camera and doing its level best to scare the daylights out of viewers. I could barely keep from walking out, myself.
Why do adapters of Dickens' classic short story always stumble into this pitfall? Why don't they ever realize that “A Christmas Carol” is a triumph of prose more than narrative (a simple allegory, told in three parts (five if you include the introduction and aftermath), that it is the tone and atmosphere that sells this story, more than the occasional supernatural shenanigans? Ghost tales are a dime a dozen; what makes the “Carol” immortal is the sense of creeping dread you feel as Dickens plays you with all the expertise of a flutist, his fingers running up and down your spine. Then there's Scrooge--a monster with a frozen heart, the heat of the supernatural gradually thawing his frozen features into some semblance of a human face.
In a sense, the “Carol” is the worse possible choice for Zemeckis--he's a master of the quick sight gag, the elaborate pan with tiny jokes tucked away in the corners, the difficult stunt pulled off with energy and drive, if not grace. He seems permanently enamored of the motion-capture process, and he's constantly trying to sell it either as an artistic alternative (a brawny, ultraviolent (and to my mind ludicrous) version of “Beowulf”) or as a possible commercial draw (“the Polar Express,” this movie). “Beowulf” barely made its $150 million budget back; this picture is struggling to recover its $200 million budget, though one imagines it can be (god forbid) a holiday perennial, much like Tim Burton's (far more textured, far more visually inventive) A Nightmare Before Christmas.
Jim Carrey, by the way, makes for a tolerable Scrooge--he doesn't really mug, Carrey-style, or at least he doesn't go too far in his mugging (in a way that's a pity; I still remember the impression he once made--like sticking a finger in a power socket--with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective). Zemeckis manages to safely encapsulate Carrey's antics inside the character's parameters, more or less shunting aside his usual excesses towards some of the more outrageous personas Carry happens to play (the various ghosts). Gary Oldman fares better as both the hapless Bob Cratchit and the freakish Marley.
I'd love to see the “Carol” properly done, as a Gothic ghost story with a quietly celebratory ending (no heavenly choirs, please!). If the Muppets can turn the tale into a comedy musical and Zemeckis into a CGI extravaganza, then Kurosawa Kiyoshi can turn it into a seasonal J-horror classic (maybe Hideo Nakata--he's more of a narrative traditionalist). One can imagine a terribly patient Ghost of Christmas Past shambling forth out of the video screen, its long hair hanging forward, its stumbling gait inevitable, inescapable.
In the meantime we have this--not too bad (the “Carol” has strength enough to survive any number of undignified adaptations), but nothing to shout from the housetops, either. Have yourselves a mumblety-mumble Christmas and a harumph-hmph New Year, folks.
First published in Businessworld 11.27.09