Christmas Carol Movies, Stave VII: A Christmas Carol (2009)

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There were at least three major animated versions of Christmas Carol made during the sixties and seventies, from the Mister Magoo adaptation to the half-hour production that won an Emmy for animation. Those versions were all made for television, though, and generally have that cheap, TV veneer about them; you can even tell where the breaks are for commercials. But in 2009, movie blockbuster impresario Robert Zemeckis brought a new, state-of-the-art 3D animated version of Scrooge and company to the big screen. With a $200 million budget, Zemeckis would have a truly special opportunity to make a Christmas Carol adaptation completely unfettered by production budget constraints.

After the jump, an opportunity lost

There are stretches of the animated 2009 Christmas Carol that are wondrous. With the beautiful animation, we’re shown a visual feast of a hyper-realized 1840s London that dazzles the eyes and imagination. And at its strongest, the movie recognizes the strength and timeless message of the original source material, and a stellar cast does Dickens’ own dialogue great justice. There is within this film large swathes of a very good and possibly even great movie.

But also present in this adaptation is the Spirit of Disney Studio Executives. You can practically hear them whacking their gold-tipped canes on the desks of the writers and animators, demanding yet another Scrooge pratfall, insisting on nonsensical hearse chase scenes, demanding atonal Marley jawbone jokes. “We’re coughing up the annual GDP of a majority of the sovereign nations in the world,” say those spectres. “Make damn sure parents feel obligated to drag their kids to see this thing at least twice every year for the next 50 Christmases.”

The end result of all that is a chaotic and confusing mess, a farrago of competing ideas and jarring shifts in the tone and artistic aim of the film. 2009’s Christmas Carol feels like an ungainly machine of a movie, one built by separate committees who never communicated in the least to one another. It lacks any unifying creative vision, and as an unfortunate by-product of its animated nature not even Scrooge is able to hold this thing together.

Spooky factor: 4 Marleys out of 10. 

The problems with 2009’s Christmas Carol start here, unfortunately. When Jacob Marley’s ghost enters the film, it is truly the greatest Marley’s ghost entrance ever. He floats, his chains intimidate, and it is utterly exhilarating. And then halfway through this section, the movie digresses into a Marley’s head bandage joke. And I can see the argument that they need to keep the movie from being too scary for little kids. And I’d buy that, except in due time we’re going to have the Christmas Yet To Pass sequence of the film and it’s hearse chase through London, which is far scarier for small children and is also 100% NOT in the book. 

The Marley sequence also helps to illustrate the “Movie by committee” approach that underlies and derails the creative framework of the film. When the ghost of Scrooge’s old business partner enters, we see poor Ebenezer cowering behind his chair, voice breaking and visibly trembling. “You don’t believe in me,” says Marley to a Scrooge who clearly believes in Marley and is already scared witless of him. Comparing this scene to previous interchanges on these lines between the two characters is illustrative of just how slapdash and unnecessarily careless this adaptation is. Yes, it’s a cartoon. That doesn’t mean we should forgive it for being sloppy.

Canonical Factor: 5 Dickenses out of 10. 

There are elements of this film that are perfectly wed to the original source material. The visit of the Ghost of Christmas Past is very good from start to finish, and because that follows directly from Marley, it brings something like hope. Maybe now, we allow ourselves to think, this movie will stay on target. And even for the visit of Christmas Present, things go well for a time. The film even finally includes this ghost’s angry rant on the hypocrisy of the church (tell me again that this is a kid’s movie).

But then things go way off the rails when Present introduces us to the children under his robe just before he fades. Rather than continue with the stern social warning of the original text, the movie decides that we need another too-scary-for-kids (and not in the book at all) zombie ghost attack sequence, one that has nothing to do with the story or overarching narrative. That’s how the film operates. It comes up with a weird, non-canonical set piece and none of the creative overseers bothers to ask whether the new bit fits in with the film, or the film’s tone, or the theme and message of the framework of the story. It’s a runaway train of terrible creative decisions, with writers, animators, and producers all shoveling in different loads of their crap, with no one steering things or applying the brakes.

Non Canonical Factor (How good is the stuff they added that isn’t in the original story?): 0 Muppets out of 10.

The pratfalls, the flights of weird fancy, the loud and unnecessary attempts to shove horror movie tropes into the latter third of the film – none of it is good. All of it is poorly realized, and helps to severely damage if not ruin what might have been a contender for the best Christmas Carol movie made to date.

Scrooge Factor: 3 Bah Humbugs out of 10.

Directors have always had the temptation to just let Jim Carrey be Jim Carrey in movies. After all, the conventional wisdom goes, you’ve hired the guy to do his thing, so let him do it. But interestingly, Carrey’s best performances have come in movies in which strong directors – Milos Forman, Peter Weir, Michel Gondry – are clearly reining him in. Carrey does his share of mugging to the camera in this movie, at least as much as he can in an animated film, and it probably should just be written down as a case of the scorpion stinging the frog. It’s Carrey’s nature, and there’s clearly no strong and creative guiding force here to tell him to do anything different.

The real knock on this performance comes from a different place, though. The best measure of an Ebenezer Scrooge is the transformation we see through the visits of the three ghosts in the night, and the Christmas morning redemption of the old miser. And here’s where this movie eventually simply loses its battle with itself to stay afloat. We never really get the feeling that Scrooge is transforming at all. He’s not so much remorseful for his life choices, but instead just scared out of his mind by ghosts.  It’s a really flawed, stunningly poor misread of the entire message of the book. In fact it almost feels as if this movie has at its heart a distressingly modern elevator pitch: “What if Scrooge never really grasped the error of his ways and flaws of his life, and instead changed because he was scared of ghosts?” 

Unintentionally Creepy Tiny Tim Factor: 2 crutches out of 10.

You’ve got an animated Tiny Tim here, so you can make him look as un-creepy as you like, and they do just that. But then they also make this Tiny Tim the most dead-eyed character in a movie that generally spends a good deal of effort animating faces to pull things out of the uncanny valley problem. Poor Tim, though. He misses out on that apparently and sits at the table at the Cratchit house looking for all the world like someone’s set down their ventriloquist dummy.

Final thoughts:

When I was a very small child, the first version of “A Christmas Carol” I fell in love with was a cheaply made animated thing that was already a few years old – and a few years past its prime – when I watched it as a 5-year-old desperately trying to make time pass faster on December weekend afternoons leading into Christmas Day. The animation of that version isn’t great. The voice acting performances aren’t notable. But that animated, hourlong version plays things straight with the story, and kindergarten-aged me had no problems following the story or being enchanted by it. And, I’m guessing, I’m not the only kid who felt that way. For years in the 1970s, that version of Christmas Carol was a local TV staple.

So yes, I suppose the main argument against the flaws I find in the 2009 Christmas Carol can be too-neatly dismissed by “But it’s a kid’s movie.” Thing is, though, kids are smart. And they have their own built-in bullshit detectors for knowing when they’re being pandered to. And there’s a reason why this unfocused, expensive mess of a movie has yet to become in the decade since its release, the kind of must-watch, reimagined holiday classic that Big Mouse Corporation thought they were buying with their $200 million.

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