A Christmas Carol (2009): Jim Carrey, Robert Zemeckis, and a Mishmash of Tones

Every modern adaptation of A Christmas Carol starts out at a disadvantage. No matter the strengths of its take on the material, no matter what unique flourishes or embellishments it adds, no matter how novel its interpretation, the new version will inevitably be compared to its hallowed predecessor, so ingrained in the public consciousness that it has become a part of the cherished lore of the holiday season.

I am speaking, of course, of the classic 1992 film, The Muppet Christmas Carol, starring Michael Caine and Kermit the Frog, in the production that forever proved that Dickens’s work is best realized in shades of well-trained British grump and felt.

Despite working in the shadow of that seminal work, writer and director Robert Zemeckis, of Back to the Future fame, brought Dickens’s story to life anew in his motion-captured retelling of the classic tale. The film stars Jim Carrey as the curmudgeonly Ebenezer Scrooge, Gary Oldman as his put-upon employee Bob Cratchit, and Colin Firth, Robin Wright, Bob Hoskins, and Cary Elwes who, alongside Carrey and Oldman, play multiple roles in filling out the film’s cast. While Zemeckis assuredly puts his own stamp on the source material, in the end, his interpretation is a muddled one.

Many times during the film, I found myself asking, “What audience is this movie intended for?” It was marketed as a child-friendly romp, with trailers that focused on Jim Carrey’s wild gesticulations and gentle humor. But despite that packaging, the film is genuinely and committedly dark. It depicts a decaying Jacob Marley with his ghostly cohorts, each appended to some Victorian torture device and bemoaning their fate. It also features the mad laughter, emaciation, and unsettling demise of the Ghost of Christmas Present, alongside grotesque personifications of ignorance and want, who taunt and haunt the protagonist. These moments, among many other scary scenes, suggest a movie that, however family-friendly its lighter moments may be, would give almost any elementary school student nightmares ‘til New Years.

He sees you when you're sleeping, kids.

Perhaps, instead, the film was meant for lovers of horror and the macabre. Zemeckis devotes particular attention to the way in which Dickens crafted a legitimate ghost story, with spirits and haunting images that were supposed to be so terrifying that his readers, not just his main character, would abandon their wicked ways. There is a latent eeriness that permeates the film and heightens the disquieting elements in the original work. Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol could have simply been intended as a tinsel-tinged scary movie, designed to spook and thrill.

And yet, much of the movie proceeds at an agonizingly slow pace. There are certain points where this feels deliberate, allowing heavier scenes to breathe, but in other places, Zemeckis relentlessly drags out moments until they lose all punch or terror. And beyond the pacing problems, Zemeckis’s cinematic adaptation exhibits an almost slavish devotion to Dickens’s original dialogue, preserving the Ghost of Christmas Present’s criticisms of the church and other stretches of Victorian-specific scenes and sentiments that would seem disconsonant in any horror film today.

So maybe the movie is a different beast altogether. Maybe it’s supposed to be a faithful retelling of the original story, with the artifacts of its time and all the elements of both horror and social commentary that Dickens included. Perhaps, in fact, it was intended to be a more mature, less neutered film adaptation of the work, aimed squarely at adults and distinguished from its family-friendly counterparts.

Why, then, are so many of the film’s most terrifying scenes punctuated with slapstick comedy? If fidelity to the source is the goal, then why does the film involve a scene where Scrooge shrinks down to the size of a thimble and attempts to fire his housemaid with a voice from Alvin and the Chipmunks? Why are we treated to Scrooge roof-surfing on an icicle? Or having a madcap chase with a demonic horse and buggy? All of these elements stitched together left me wondering if this film was actually intended for some narrow group of individuals who seek out faithful retellings of spooky Victorian tales while hoping for the additional flair of a Roadrunner cartoon.

There’s still good material in each of these disparate aspects of the film. As superfluous as they feel, many of the action set pieces are inventive and make use of the freedom the CGI permits. The ghosts that haunt Scrooge’s bedchamber are each legitimately scary in their own way. There’s a warmth to the scene where Scrooge witnesses his nephew Fred teasing him, but nevertheless wishing him well, and an intimate sadness when Scrooge sees Bob Cratchit’s private grief over the death of his son. And while the film’s finale veers a bit too far off into standard Jim Carrey wackiness, it otherwise plays Scrooge’s newfound jubilation to the hilt, and it largely works. But the odd mishmash of tones renders the movie an exercise in hunting for scraps.

The effort is not helped by the wildly uneven performance capture animation in the film. All of the cast members play multiple roles thanks to computer-assisted trickery, but the wonkiness of the result is, at times, creepier and more unsettling than anything the film actually intended to be scary. The uncanny valley is ever present, with characters who are too exaggerated to seem like real human beings, and too realistic to have the outsized plausibility of a cartoon character.

What's wrong with your face?

In fact, many of the film’s characters look like animatronic robots wearing stretched-out human skins, with movements that feel like the unnerved twitches of an electrified corpse. Bob Cratchit in particular appears to be some sort of deformed, seizing hobbit. Zemeckis’s chosen medium, also employed in his polarizing adaptations of Beowulf and The Polar Express, allows for a certain amount of creativity with the story’s ghosts and setting, and takes advantage of the actors’ versatility, but these issues with the characters’ movements and lipsyncing turn the movie’s visual presentation into a strange cross between Night of the Living Dead and The Sims.

There’s an ambition clearly present in Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol. But it’s a very unfocused ambition that tries to accomplish too many divergent goals. The end result is a number of generally intriguing elements that don’t add up to a cohesive whole. It’s a noble attempt, but all things considered, I think I’ll stick with the Muppets.

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