In 1824, a young boy's father was sent to prison and the boy was forced to leave school and work in a shoe polish factory. By the mid-1800s, he had seen enough poverty and hardships that he wanted to write a manifesto about capitalist greed. Inspired by stories of traditional old English Christmas, he, now a young man, decided to change that into a story that single-handedly led to the return of Christmas as a festival of merriment and bonhomie, and reinvented it as a secular festival meant for giving and sharing.
More than one-and-a-half century later, the book is the cornerstone on English language literature, and unless you skipped English lit classes in school, something we have grown up reading and appreciating. It is utterly ironic that the book's latest adaptation is such a diametric opposite of what it stood for. Fuelled by Hollywood greed and vanity, Robert Zemeckis' adaptation lacks the soul of the book, and completely misses the point.
Utterly familiar and forever taught as essential reading, it was needed for any adaptation coming out now to bring something fresh to the table. Robert Zemeckis has remained very true to the narrative, but added two crucial things - one is the thoroughly unnecessary touch of moving his camera all around the 3D space giving us an actual roller coaster ride from time to time, and the other being a touch of cynicism that pervades the film more than the festive spirit.
Not only does the director take particular glee in subjecting Scrooge to the cruelties that the script demands, he has made the tale about Scrooge reforming because he is afraid of hell. Gone are the ultimate message of redemption and the ever flickering light of human kindness that is ignited in Scrooge by Tiny Tim and crew. In place is a new found cynicism that forces him to be nice lest he be literally damned.
Of course, it would have been easy for me to damn this film, but the truth is that the rest of it holds up. The story is still intact, even though the message isn't, and the acting is what you'd expect it to be. Bob Zemeckis needs motion capture and these actors - I thought in his earlier iterations (including The Polar Express and Beowulf
) that he was trying to get the most from the technology, but the truth is he needs the 3D space for his spectacle and he needs his real actors to direct the emotion.
Zemeckis cannot direct a virtual character if it isn't enacted by an actor right in front him. That need of physicality (unlike, say, a Brad Bird) makes him get the most out of Jim Carrey. Carrey is fine - he isn't ground-breaking, but he brings it his all, and nails the character. The other actors also enact the roles with a hyper-realism that the film requires.
The visual spectacle is intact, too. Earlier on, I mentioned that the film is a roller coaster. Zemeckis uses the virtual space as his playground, and takes the audience through swoops and fast travels through his world, affecting a complete ride. Unnecessary? Yes. Exhilarating? Absolutely.
I wish the film could have been better - a fresh take, or a film that was warm and got the message and tone pat. At the same time I cannot indict the film completely - the visual spectacle on offer is pretty solid, and the incredibly fun performance by Carrey as well as the delightful interpretation of the ghosts as nasty spirits is well worth the admission ticket.
If you have children who haven't yet read this in school, or, especially, if they have, this is not necessary but slightly recommended watching. The caveat, however, is that you have to explain the true meaning of Christmas, because the film sure doesn't.