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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

A Christmas Carol (review)

Christmas Nightmare

There’s something about Jim Carrey that I find highly intriguing, and it’s the something that’s very dark and bleak in him. It’s not a quality of his that often gets played to — in fact, I first noticed this about him in the otherwise terrible psychological thriller The Number 23, a few years back, in which he portrayed a man descending into insanity, because it seemed as if the film was terrified of unleashing that aspect of Carrey. It struck me then that almost everything we’ve ever seen Carrey do — comedy and drama alike — has been terrified of what looks to me like rage in him, and so it gets corralled into a grinning, hyper mania that is somehow perceived as “safe” because it’s “just” “funny.”
I’d love to see what Carrey would do with the Joker for a director who was willing to harness that rage. (The Riddler for a hack like Joel Schumacher? *shudder*)

I might have said, too, that Ebenezer Scrooge could be a good fit for that rage. The simmering bitterness of decades of Dickens’ antihero seems uniquely suited to a new interpretation of Scrooge by Carrey in the hands of maybe a Darren Aronofsky or a Kathryn Bigelow, someone who would give the story a horror-movie treatment we haven’t quite seen before.

But not this Christmas Carol. Not from Robert Zemeckis, who appears to have given up making fantasies for grownups (Forrest Gump, Contact) in favor of making theme-park attractions designed to do nothing more than shut the kiddies up for 90 minutes, if they can sit still for that long for the dazzling (see also: The Polar Express). This Christmas Carol panders to the audience at the same time it’s insulting us: it assumes we’re unable to appreciate a classic of long standing and ongoing, perennial enjoyment unless it’s dressed up in 3D IMAX drag and sends us on roller coaster rides through the streets of Victorian London. Hell, it assumes we don’t even know this is spun out of one of the most famous works by one of the most famous writers ever — that’s why the opening credits actually condescend to inform us that this is “based on the classic story by Charles Dickens” (emphasis mine).

Zemeckis, who also wrote the screenplay, has nothing at all new to bring to the story of the miserly, antisocial Scrooge who gets a wakeup call one Christmas Eve via the ministrations of three ghosts who show him the error of his ways… never mind if today’s new atmosphere of meanness and every-man-for-himself-ness suggests that some modern spin might have been found. (Just because Dickens was indicting the heartless capitalism and government abandonment of the poor of his era doesn’t mean there’s any application in the 21st century. None at all.) Unless you find it clever and amusing to get virtually sprayed in the face by Marley’s ghostly spittle coming out at you in 3D — that’s new, I guess. Oh, and there is the chase sequence. You mean you don’t remember the bit in Dickens where Scrooge gets chased through the snowy London streets by demonic red-eyed horses till he shrinks down to the size of a mouse… with accompanying squeaky Scrooge mouse voice, of course? (I so wish I were making that up.) That’s a Zemeckis contribution.

That might be the worst thing about this literally Disneyfied take on A Christmas Carol: Zemeckis appears to think that Scrooge is a comic figure, not a tragic one. He gets buffeted around like Wile E. Coyote. He suffers much physical abuse at the hands of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future (all of which Carrey also supplies the voices of). The psychological and emotional assault he’s meant to be under simply isn’t as interesting to Zemeckis, and mostly gets foisted off as supposedly sad looks in the zombie eyes of the waxy faces of the CGI-animated people whose misfortunes the ghosts force Scrooge to witness.

Carrey was able to transcend the makeup he had to endure in the equally misfired Grinch adaptation a few years ago in order to make that character searingly pitiful. But he can’t overcome the motion-capture technology that renders him into an actual cartoon here. His Scrooge — just as uncomfortably synthetic looking as all the other “people” onscreen — becomes just one more element that makes this Christmas Carol creepy in all the wrong ways, and in none of the right ones.


MPAA: rated PG for scary sequences and images

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb
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  • JoshDM

    Robin Williams should have been The Riddler.

  • CB

    Totally unsurprising review. Except for that last paragraph which I’ll summarize as “Worse than Grinch“.

    If I wanted a Disneyfied version of A Christmas Carol, I’d watch the version with Scrooge McDuck. If I wanted a modern interpretation with wit and charm, I’d watch Scrooged. Okay, frankly, I’d just watch Scrooged in any case because that movie is great.

    I agree with you that there’s a lot of potential in Jim Carrey. He got to let out his dark side a bit in Cable Guy and it was fun, not that the movie was very good. But I don’t know, I think he’s getting kinda lazy and allowing himself to become a one-note actor a step above the Adam Sandlers and Will Ferrils. The last thing I honestly liked him in was Man on the Moon.

  • MaryAnn

    I honestly don’t think we can blame Carrey. I think Hollywood either doesn’t know what to do with him, or is terrified of him.

  • CB

    I think you have a point there.

  • Drave

    CB: Ironically, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell are both what I would consider textbook examples of fantastic actors who do really interest work when they rise above the crap they usually get cast in. See Punch Drunk Love and Funny People for Sandler, and Stranger Than Fiction for Ferrell.

  • Patti H.

    Thanks, MaryAnn. I’ve been seeing mostly positive reviews of this, and couldn’t stand it. What little glimpses I’ve caught (likewise “Polar Express”) creep me out no end.

    >>If I wanted a Disneyfied version of A Christmas Carol, I’d watch the version with Scrooge McDuck. If I wanted a modern interpretation with wit and charm, I’d watch Scrooged. Okay, frankly, I’d just watch Scrooged in any case because that movie is great.

  • CB

    Drave: Well, maybe Sandler can do that, but I gave up on him long ago when it became clear he was happy lazily wallowing in progressively less funny and original remakes of Happy Gilmore with no attempt to “rise above” (since most of the crap I’m thinking of was written by him). Ferrel seemed to be heading in the same direction with remakes of Anchor Man. I don’t think I’ll be giving Sandler much of a second chance, but I’ll keep an eye out for Ferrel.

  • Jane

    Will Ferrel is very good in Stranger than Fiction, and it’s the only film I think I’ve seen him in.

    I love MaryAnn’s almost horror version of A Christmas Carol – would be fantastic and I’d go to see it!

  • NorthernStar

    Nothing had match the Alistair Sim version. So why do people keep trying?

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    That was almost exactly what I was expecting from this. The trailer had that exact sort of theme park mentality to it, with the dread words “As you’ve NEVER seen it before.” Well yeah. I also haven’t seen it performed by yodelling kung-fu monks either, but I have no real desire to see THAT either.

    In revenge I watched Mickey’s Christmas Carol the other night, which is still a classic piece of work, and then downloaded the original from the Gutenberg Project.

    Ahhh. :)

  • I_Sell_Books

    Jim Carey’s finest moment still remains The Cable Guy, where some of that darkness shines through. Alas, I don’t think he’ll ever get the opportunity to do anything else unless he goes to Europe or Jim Jarmusch or someone comes calling.

  • Accounting Ninja

    I had a sinking feeling that this would happen. When I saw all the slapstick in the previews I was like, OH NO. It’s like Scrooge is a cartoon character, and not because he’s CGI.

    Think I’ll just stick to Scrooged, which also stars a comedian as Scrooge. Sort of.

  • JoshDM

    No one ever brings up The Truman Show. Certainly it can only be because the film was forgettable, but I enjoyed it and I enjoyed Carrey in it.

  • Carrey was able to transcend the makeup he had to endure in the equally misfired Grinch adaptation a few years ago in order to make that character searingly pitiful.

    And yet several times during that movie, I wanted to smack Jim Carrey’s character because he was so smug and unlikeable, especially toward the end (SPOILER) when he had supposedly redeemed himself and yet was still hogging the audience’s attention.

    But then I always preferred the Chuck Jones/Boris Karloff version.

    It’s like Scrooge is a cartoon character, and not because he’s CGI.

    Actually the first version of A Christmas Carol I ever saw on TV was an animated cartoon. (And no, it wasn’t the one with Mister Magoo.)

    And I’ve actually seen quite a few animated versions that were pretty good.

    However, judging by the trailer, I doubt this will end up being one of them.

    f I wanted a modern interpretation with wit and charm, I’d watch Scrooged. Okay, frankly, I’d just watch Scrooged in any case because that movie is great.

    You need to stop writing Scrooged when you actually mean to write A Blackadder Christmas Carol. ;-)

    Seeriously, that’s the one version from the 1980s I find worth watching over and over again. And that’s despite my being a big Karen Allen fan. ;-)

    Scrooged I found on the most part to be a big disappointment. It had a few laughs but in view of its cast, I expected a lot more from it than it delivered.

    And isn’t that the problem MaryAnn appears to be having with this flick? A lot of talented cooks preparing the cinematic broth but at best so-so results?

  • MaryAnn

    No one ever brings up The Truman Show. Certainly it can only be because the film was forgettable, but I enjoyed it and I enjoyed Carrey in it.

    Oh, I don’t think that film is forgettable at all. It’s definitely one of the best films of the last 20 years. And yes, Carrey is fantastic in it.

    You need to stop writing Scrooged when you actually mean to write A Blackadder Christmas Carol. ;-)

    Humbug! Humbug! Humbug, Mr. Baldrick?

    (I love BA’s Xmas Carol.)

    And isn’t that the problem MaryAnn appears to be having with this flick? A lot of talented cooks preparing the cinematic broth but at best so-so results?

    Unfortunately, in view of what Zemeckis did with *Polar Express,* this is *exactly* what I was expecting from it.

  • JoshDM
    No one ever brings up The Truman Show. Certainly it can only be because the film was forgettable, but I enjoyed it and I enjoyed Carrey in it.

    Oh, I don’t think that film is forgettable at all. It’s definitely one of the best films of the last 20 years. And yes, Carrey is fantastic in it.

    It simply seems that when anyone ever mentions Carrey, they tend to lean towards his more visible performances as Ace Ventura, The Riddler, The Cable Guy, Liar Liar, and Andy Kaufman. Too many pass over Truman. It was one of the first DVDs I ever purchased. Big fan of the THX-1138 genre.

  • Brian

    I may never get the chance to cash in on this wager, since I’ll probably never watch the new Zemeckis techno-orgy . . . but I’d be willing to bet good money all the same that any thinking person with an active imagination would get more satisfaction out of Patrick Stewart’s one-man recording of A Christmas Carol.

    I just clicked the link to your review of Grinch, by the way, and having read that, I think one could make a very similar argument about the perversion of A Christmas Carol as you could with Dr. Seuss’s story. Turning the story of Scrooge into a CG-enhanced, super-deluxe box office cash cow is about as cynical and Scrooge-y a thing as you could do . . .

  • esl

    When I saw the trailer featuring the above mentioned “chase scene” I decided to take a pass. I knew it would lack Jim Carrey’s comedic facial expressions. But, I could tell from the trailer that this was going to be a Disneyfied disaster. Sorry you had to take a bullet to let us know how truly bad this film is. Scrooged was the last great reinterpretation of the film.

  • Accounting Ninja

    @Tonio: I meant “cartoon character” in the figurative, derogatory way: thinly drawn, shallow and needlessly “wacky”. I’m in no way knocking animated Scrooges. :)
    In fact, some of my favorite characters ever happen to be animated!

  • StevenM

    I used to like the Muppet Christmas Carol. Michael Caine’s acting seemed pretty good when I was seven. The Mickey one gave me nightmares when I was little. Evil Christmas trees or something. Anyway, Jim Carey is one of those people who really grates on the nerves when he’s doing his shtick, which I agree is some bizarre channeling of white hot rage, and even though I liked him in Eternal Sunshine, and liked him despite 23, I would pay money not to have to endure his spastic routine. Same with Robin Williams. Like, upwards of twenty dollars.

  • In fact, some of my favorite characters ever happen to be animated!

    Sorry for the misinterpretation, Accounting Ninja.

    I should have suspected that’s what you meant.

    After all, we live in an age in which one sees more sophisticated social commentary in King of the Hill, old school Simpsons episodes and, of course, Pixar movies than in many live-action movies that are allegedly aimed at adults…

  • MaryAnn

    Anyway, Jim Carey is one of those people who really grates on the nerves when he’s doing his shtick

    Agreed, but he doesn’t actually do his schtick here. The terribleness of the movie is entirely down to Zemeckis, not Carrey.

  • Pedro

    Surprise. I kinda liked the movie.

    I was gunning to hate it. I got tickets for the preview screening, and it was dubbed in my country’s language (where most dubs are god-awful). Add a room that, at half-mast, still had quite a few potentially screaming kids, and all was set for disaster.

    I sighed of relief when I discovered the movie wasn’t live-action, and just settled in for the ride. What I saw was…well, strange, but not bad.

    First of all, as a grown-up (age 24), I’m not sure I’d recommend this to kids. The language, taken straight from Dickens, is too high-falutin’ and…well, it’s scary. REALLY scary. Even I was freaked out by Marley’s Ghost and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. They try to tone it down, with the slapstick and the flying sequences and that god-awful shrinkage scene, but fail to hit a compromise, and end up detracting from the movie.

    Other than that, there aren’t many ways you can screw up “A Christmas Carol”. Zemeckis is a competent children’s director and, while this may seem like a trite “learning the true spirit of Christmas” story, remember…this is the ORIGINAL “learning the true meaning of Christmas” story. It’s also one your kids should be introduced to.

    The saddest part may be thinking that this is destined to be a throwaway flick, forgotten by the time the next one (in this case, Arthur and the Revenge of Maltazard) comes along. The under-14 generation already has its defining movies, its Lion Kings and Princess Brides and Wizards of Oz. They are called Finding Nemo, Up and maybe Wall-E and Kung Fu Panda. Most everything else is just fluff destined to sucker in parents’ money.

    In fact, it may be even *more* sad to know that this will inevitably turn into a videogame. Tell me you can’t just see it: Travel through 14 Exciting Locations! Control Scrooge as he Flies Through Snowy Trees! Help him Escape the Chariot of Death! Explore the Sewers Shrunk to the Size of a Mouse!! Available on PS3, Xbox Live, PC DVD-Rom and Nintendo DS.

    *sigh*….

    …anyway, decent movie, but not for kids methinks.

  • Pedro

    Also, note that the kids were silent the whole movie, save for a few feeble attempts at laughing. And I definitely saw a couple of people slinking out early…terrified kids, maybe?

  • Pedro

    Also, note that the kids were silent the whole movie, save for a few feeble attempts at laughing. And I definitely saw a couple of people slinking out early…terrified kids, maybe? This was around the point where Scrooge is seen falling to his own grave.

    ….you know, for kids!!

  • MaryAnn, have you seen Carrey’s new official website? It’s kind of ingenious, and it plays around in that dark side you were talking about. Frankly, it’s the most interesting “movie star” website I’ve seen in a long time.

  • Lori

    Hey, I’m going to be the stick in the mud here and say i LOVED it!!! When I first saw the previews I COULDN’T wait for it to come out!!! I was delightfully surprized!! I appreciated the films more raw qualities. frankly I’m sick of the movie predictabilty routine. This movie actually had me scared!! I went there expecting a happy feel good film. It surprized me delightfully, while still stickining to the story we know and love. Am I the only one here who thinks the Grinch is a work of genius? I’m sick of everybody comparing these two performances. I lovr the mickey version, I grew up on that one, and this version is sure to become a christmas yearly. I did find the chase scene outta place, what does shrinking hafta do with anything? But I laugh whenever I hear chipmunk voices, and I wished they carried that out for at least one more minute. Cmon people,just because this isn’t the most feel good film you were expecting, don’t bash it! Embrace the rawness of the film! It’s different,which is why I liked it!! Another thing, I’m sick of people saying how the characters don’t look real enough. IT’S A CARTOON!!!!!! they -aren’t- supposed to look too real. you don’t critize other cartoons for being fake,so lighten up. It aint for the kiddies though, be warned. I say give it a chance! It’s worth it!

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