Bah 3-D performance capture, hurrah Dickens ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bah 3-D performance capture, hurrah Dickens

A Christmas Carol
My rating:

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is a true classic of English literature - as well as one of the most overdone. I remember a time when every TV show - especially sitcoms - would have a "Christmas Carol" episode in which someone (usually the nastiest member of the cast) plays the Scrooge role and learns a trite and hackneyed lesson in being nice to others. (A lesson which is often forgotten by the next episode). So when I heard that yet another movie version of the story is coming - one that's directed by Robert Zemeckis no less - my first reaction was, again? Hasn't this tired old horse been beaten to death already?

Why, no. No it hasn't.

For the ignorant amongst you who've never heard of Dickens' story, it's about the bitter and miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey), who is so mean that he scorns his nephew Fred's (Colin Firth) invitation to Christmas dinner, and only begrudgingly gives his employee Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman) the day off. On the night of Christmas Eve, he receives four ghostly visitors. The first is his former business partner Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman); the next are the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet To Come (Jim Carrey). By showing him the past, present and future, they will teach him a lesson in kindness and charity and the Christmas spirit - but it will be a harsh lesson indeed.

Robert Zemeckis is probably one of the best living film directors today - or at least, he used to be. He deserves a lifetime pass for directing Back to the Future, a bona fide modern classic, and entries like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump look pretty damn good on his resume too. But he hasn't made an actual live-action film since Cast Away in 2000; since then, he's been all the way into 3D-animated performance capture films like The Polar Express, Beowulf, and now A Christmas Carol. I gotta ask, why?

I don't like the technique. I haven't liked it since Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within from 2001. I have no idea why people are still making animated films that try to look realistic. It never works. Final Fantasy's characters failed to capture the subtleties and nuances of actual flesh-and-blood actors, and ended up looking like a B-grade sci-fi actioner with really wooden acting. Zemeckis tried to solve this problem by applying motion capture onto actors' faces, and it still doesn't work - even when he had Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, and Anthony Freaking Hopkins in Beowulf. There's always that intangible realness that simply gets lost in the translation.

And you know what else I noticed in A Christmas Carol? It takes a lot of effort and attention to detail - not to mention computer processing power - to make its characters look real, or real enough. Scrooge and Bob Cratchit look pretty good; but all too often, I was distracted by one or more minor background characters that just looks downright cacat. Major uncanny valley territory! Every time it happened, it just pulled me out of the story and kept reminding me that all this would work so much better if that had been the real Jim Carrey and Gary Oldman playing the roles. And it isn't just the way they look, it's also the way they move. There's a dance sequence in which the dancers bounced up and down like - well, like cartoons. Which is why an honest-to-goodness 3D-animated cartoon like Pixar's films work, whereas something like this - that tries to look real, but gets all the tiny little details wrong - doesn't.

Okay, that's my rant. It's just me, and Mr. Zemeckis would obviously disagree. Now I did say that Dickens' classic novella has been done to death, and it has - but only because it's suffered adaptation decay. I didn't know Scrooge had a fiancee (Robin Wright Penn), for one; I found the scene where she leaves him the most emotionally affecting in the whole movie. And the use of (what I assume to be, since it sure sounds like it) Dickens' original dialogue makes it perhaps one of the more faithful adaptations in recent years. That dude could write, and the voice actors deliver his lines perfectly.

And it's certainly a visually stunning and thrilling adaptation; there's more than one scene where the various Ghosts take Scrooge on soaring flights across the skies of 19th century London, and it's pretty cool. Zemeckis is still a great director, and if nothing else, the animation medium gives him the license to compose spectacular shots and scenes that would be impossible to capture in live-action. (Which is probably why he loves it.) Unfortunately, there's also a long chase scene with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come and a Scrooge that inexplicably shrinks to insect-size, and it's just pure padding - I was just waiting for it to end and get back to the story.

But it's still a fun movie, and it reminds us how great the original story was. Its message of compassion, charity and human warmth is still relevant in this day and age; few people are as overtly misanthropic as Scrooge, but there are still those who think money and wealth are the only true measure of success in life. This is a movie for them, and even though it's not as good as it should have been, it still has a lesson to teach them. Oh, and do stay for "God Bless Us Everyone", an original Christmas carol written by Alan Silvestri and performed by Andrea Bocelli, that plays over the end credits. It's really quite lovely.

NEXT REVIEW: Ninja Assassin
Expectations: doesn't sound good from what I've heard


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