Sunday, 6 December 2009

GOD HELP US, EVERYONE!

Some of you - aware that I have a predilection for a certain seasonal classic by Chas Dickens Esq - will have been waiting for me to blog about the new Jim Carrey-in-(more or less)-all-parts version of A Christmas Carol...


As you probably know, I have seen and heard, in my time, a great many versions of A Christmas Carol on stage, film, TV, radio and recordings: the much-lauded Alistair Sim movie; Patrick Stewart's one-man theatre show, Bill Murray's pastiche, Scrooged; musicals, operas and ballets; updated versions, Americanised versions, black, Jewish and female versions (the gay interpretation must be soon!); versions featuring the Muppets, the Flintstones and the Jetsons, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Mr Magoo and even - heaven help me - Barbie!

I have even (modestly) added to the canon with a stage adaptation of my own, a radio programme and a book - A Christmas Carol: The Unsung Story - cataloguing the history of Dickens' little classic and what we have done with it since.

The only people who know as much as me about A Christmas Carol are my good friend Boll Weavil (who shares this seasonally adjusted obsession) and my long-suffering David who has loyally looked at and listened to most, if not all, of the versions in my not inconsiderable collection! In fact he once spent a car journey listening to Miriam Margolyes rattle through the unabridged text at a rate of knots (in order for it to be able to fit onto a double-cassette) while I slept though the entire performance in the passenger seat!

Anyway...

When you have experienced that much Humbugging, it's hard to be neutral about a new adaptation especially one that is created by Robert (Back to the Future/Who Framed Roger Rabbit/Forrest Gump) Zemeckis, using his now preferred medium of motion capture animation (as seen in Polar Express and Beowulf) as well as being projected in motion-sickness-inducing 3-D and with Jim Carrey playing Scrooge at various ages through his life and the three spirits who haunt his Christmas Eve.


I saw this new Carol - 'Disney's A Christmas Carol', by the way - at London's IMAX several weeks ago in very agreeable company (David, Irascian and Polkadotsoph) but felt it would be indecent to blog about such a totally Christmassy Christmas film before bonfire night and Poppy Day had been and gone... But, with just a little over two weeks to go to Christmas, I can put off the task no longer...

By now, you may well have read, heard or seen the fairly uniformly negative reviews of this movie and, indeed, it is not above criticism. Personally - apart from being something of a Carrey-phobe - I am not a lover of mo-cap other than as part of the creation of such characters as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and find that when 'real' people are animated using this method they invariably tend to have the appearance of rather bad waxworks, so there is something creepy (presumably unintentionally) about Gary Oldman's not-quite-look-alike Bob Cratchit and (below) Colin Firth as Scrooge's genial nephew


I am reminded of some of those illustrators who slavishly base their pictures on photographs and, as a result, tend to produce something that looks neither illustrative or lifelike.

In the case of A Christmas Carol, it is, perhaps, ironic - for a process that seeks to replicate the human form - that it is the highly caricatured Scrooge that works best in terms of believability.

Perhaps we are so used to suspending our disbelief when watching animated films that they simply too disorientating when they stray too close to reality...

On the plus side, the film is - for the most part - extremely faithful to Dickens' text, to the extent of including scenes and dialogue usually stripped away by the dramatists and screenwriters intent on interpolating their own 'reading' of the characters.

But the heart of the story - the tale of one man's reformation from squeezing, wrenching, gasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner to a man born anew on Christmas morning - needs, in theatrical presentation, some sense of understanding of why Ebenezer Scrooge became the man that he was and why, in being shown ghosts of his past and shadows of the future (as well as the present being enjoyed and celebrated by others) he relents and mends his ways. That subtlety is unfortunately absent.

The trailer, as you can see here, suggests an 'all-action' movie, but then Hollywood expects nothing less...




In reality, much of the film is a series of static, wordy (often ponderous) tableaux infused with, by and large, a well-observed evocation of Victorian London - avoiding the over-tinseled Christmas embellishments of several film versions of the book - and interrupted by exhilarating (or nauseous-making, depending on your fondness for roller-coasters) episodes involving dizzying expeditions over the London rooftops: skimming church spires, chimney pots and weather vanes.

These sequences are staggeringly enhanced by the all-stops-out 3-D effects confirming that, for the foreseeable future, 3-D is not some passing a fad. Curiously, however, the single most effective moment was, perhaps, the simplest: the sense of being in the midst of falling snow.

All of that said, there are some wonderfully realised moments such as the arrival of the ghost of Jacob Marley, a lurid, icy green vision of terror that captures Dickens' taste for Grand Guignol.


So, it's another Scrooge for the book (if I ever get to update it) and whilst I still find digitally-created humans a tad too creepy to believe in, let alone like, I am sure that this form of animation will continue to be refined and developed so that, in years to come, people will look back at this Disney-Dickens version of A Christmas Carol as being another milestone in the refinement of a medium that - in over a hundred years - has never once stopped evolving.

You will find an interesting take on the moral taught by this new Christmas Carol on my friend John Wilkinson's website WalesHome.org.

14 comments:

Suzanne said...

I was looking forward to going to see this film (as a Dickens/Scrooge fan myself - there I've said it!), but when I realised it was mo-cap I immediately decided against it, as I did with Beowulf. I quite agree with you, this semi-real pictures are CREEPY! I feel they should either use humans to their full potential or revert to proper cartoon images! I shall be looking forward to your book!This being said, I think my favourite interpretations of the story are Bill Murray's Scrooged and the passage in John Irving's "A prayer for Owen Meany". mence: a mo-cap recipe for mince meat (now I'm just being silly!)

Brian Sibley said...

You should see it!

I think more or less every version of this story that I have experienced, enjoyed or endured (in any medium) has revealed to me or reminded me of some particular aspect or quality of Dickens' original that has merit...

scb said...

It's time to get out my copy and re-read, and hunt the television listings for Alistair Sim! It sounds as though I would do well to give this new rendition a miss, however -- I don't think I have the stomach for the triple combo of 3-D, mo-cap, and IMAX. Fantastic review, however (as befits my favorite reviewer). I do NOT enjoy roller coasters (even over the rooftops of London -- coo, what a sight!)

I'm with Suzanne -- human actors have far greater potential, as does truly well done animation.

Muppets and Mickey (how about Rich Little?) can bring the story to those who wouldn't be likely to tackle it in its traditional form. I tend to hope that the snippets of the story Julie Andrews reads to "Eloise" in the kids' TV movie "Eloise at Christmastime" might suggest to parents that they do the same. ... ... ... but Barbie????

I've linked to this on my blog -- hope that's okay. (Yes, I know that asking afterward is slightly backward of me. *ducks*)

INGLEVO -- the tingling feeling (minus one's tea, hence, the "ingling" feeling) of being levitated over the chimney pots of London in glorious 3-D.)

Melynda Huskey said...

I believe it's called "the uncanny valley": the closer the rendition is to being human, the more weight the tiny details which clearly aren't human bear in our viewing, and we get creeped out. Hating both Jim Carrey and mocap as I do, this is my idea of hell. I'll stick with good old George C. Scott--which at least includes Ignorance and Want, without whom there's very little point to the film.

Andy J. Latham said...

I've got to say that I really dislike motion capture being grouped into the animation category. Animation is all about putting life into things that have none. Motion capture takes objects with life (actors) and drains it from them.

I used to think the two could co-exist, but I've found an even greater dislike for the method since hearing Zemeckis talking about trying to do away with the need for animators. That to me shows the biggest amount of ignorance of what an animator does.

Animation pushes things beyond real and makes them believable, motion capture pulls things away from being real and creates uneasiness.

Zemeckis is not creating animated films. In my opinion he is screwing over animators and actors in one foul swoop.

Brian Sibley said...

SCB - I know (and have) the Rich Little parody with its wonderful impersonations of Hollywood's Great and Good. Excellent fun and a testimony to the way in which Dickens' story can live with the attentions of the satirist and parodist without losing its integrity.


MELYNDA HUSKEY - Zemeckis includes Ignorance and Want, but I'm with you in enjoying George C Scott's interpretation.

My chum, BOLL WEAVIL, will disagree over this (he always has and always will!) but I like the against-type casting of Scott (not the archetypal scrawny Scrooge, but a well-heeled businessman who takes care of himself and no one else) and the supporting cast is excellent: especially David Warner as Bob Cratchit, Frank Finlay as Marley's Ghost and the late Edward Woodward as a kindly, yet ironic, Spirit of Christmas Present.

This is also one of the few versions where Scrooge is not (wrongly) shown clad in his nightshirt but (as Dickens describes him) wearing his slippers and donning a dressing-gown over his ordinary clothes.


ANDY J LATHAM - Well, that's pretty powerfully put --- and pretty much sums it up! And, on balance, I wouldn't argue with your conclusions.

Good Dog said...

I've already grumbled enough about my utter loathing for these horrible, creepy motion capture films.

It was interesting to read Andy's comments about Zemeckis trying to do away with animators. Motion capture already does away with location managers, make-up artists, set builders and decorators, all the sparks, grips, camera crews, and everyone else so vital to making a great live action film.

I could understand if the process kept the budget down but this one cost $200 million.

Yours

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.

Brian Sibley said...

Dear Disgusted...

I take your point, although there are a zillion artists/technicians on the credits along with, surprisingly, wardrobe and make-up and (though, according to IMDb, sadly uncredited) a 'motion capture costume draper'!

Phil said...

Great review, Brian, helping me in my decision to wait for the DVD of Mr Zemeckis' version...

Did you know that Dickens' original manuscript has gone on display in New York?

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8375054.stm


adrase: to enhance public awareness of a film through endless plugging.

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks for that, PHIL, and following your lead, I tracked down this article in The New York Times that discusses some of the changes Dickens made to his text during the writing process and has a link to examine the manuscript pages.

Ian said...

I think it's a shame Phil is going to wait for the DVD. The 3D version in all its IMAX glory is worth seeing, whereas I suspect that watching it on shiny disc will just highlight the flaws (the fact that Gary Oldman and Colin Firth look VERY "waxy"). I don't like Carrey either and he's not a good enough actor to have carried this off (although he thankfully doesn't over-gurn and actually looks fantastic in his stop-motion form) It's just a shame he seems to want to keep veering into impersonating Alistair Sim, something he's just not very good at.

The film is too long, and the silly Hollywood additions (roller-coaster ride into space, anyone!) are the main cause. But there are some truly magical moments in it, and Victorian London in 3D is worth the asking price of admission in my book. If nothing else you have to admire the way Zemeckis has remained extremly faithful to Dickens' dialogue.

Brian Sibley said...

IAN is right about the need to see a 3D film in 3D; on disc it will look, I suspect, pretty dull.

He is also correct in saying that there is, as I said in my review, a fine evocation of Victorian London and the Dickensian script is one of the most faithful of any screen adaptation - including the revered Sim-version.

Boll Weavil said...

I'm afraid I have to confess I haven't seen the film yet ! I will go to the cinema and 'enjoy' it in 3d though - the trailor looks interesting.I don't worry too much about how good it is (afterall, I only have to watch it once) but I'm always fascinated by the references to versions that have gone before - the trailor has a scene of Scrooge dancing with his housekeeper which is TOTALLY Sim and most people regard this as the best version.Not me ! As Mr B says, I dislike George C Scott but then I stand by Finney as my favourite characterisation. I couldn't make a case for the musical of 1970 other than to say that 'CD' didn't want to labour the thing enough to put his audience out of humour with themselves or the day so that indicates it should be played as entertainment first and foremost.After that, its just personal preference !

Brian Sibley said...

And, of course, the Albert Finney version of Scrooge features one of the best-ever Mr Fezziwigs (Laurence Naismith) singing that great Leslie Bricusse number 'December the 25th'