A Christmas Carol (2009) – Humbug in the Uncanny Valley

Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserable miser who hates Christmas. One night he is visited by the ghost of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, who tells him he will be visited by three spirits. Why am I summarizing the plot of this movie? Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the most well-known, beloved and retold stories ever put onto paper; virtually everyone is already familiar with the story’s premise.

Hollywood has been adapting Charles Dickens’ popular story to film since the days of Thomas Edison. This particular adaption of the beloved tale was created using 3D performance capturing technology. Robert Zemeckis, whose more recent films (The Polar Express, Beowulf) seem to indicate an obsession with this technology, directs this expensive redo of the Dickens classic.

I believe that in order to effectively retell this classic tale, a film adaption needs to have a certain human warmth to it. The 1951 adaption (titled A Christmas Carol in the United States and Scrooge internationally) starring Alastair Sim does a very good job at giving heart and warmth to this story. Some people like the version with the Muppets. The 2009 version, on the other hand, just feels wrong.

This film is filled with dead-eyed CGI characters that look and feel wrong. The characters are modeled too closely to real life to look like a cartoon, but they don’t look quite real enough to pass as human. Performance capture technology is not itself a bad thing. Gollum from The Lord of the Rings trilogy used performance capture technology. The problem is how they used it in this film. This movie should have either been shot with normal cameras and actors in costumes, or it should have made its character models more stylized, like the endearing Carl Fredricksen in Up.

Jim Carrey’s performance as Scrooge is decent, not incredible, but decent. It also helped that he was the best-animated of all the characters in the film. The other performances were deeply inhibited by the performance-capture technology.

The plot of this film is exactly what you’d expect it to be; it’s relatively faithful to the original story, but with a few little moments changed here and there. Most of the liberties the film takes with the story seem unnecessary and often distracting.

The ghost of Christmas past is a giant candle with a face that talks with an airy voice. I think they took the voice a little too far, making what was originally a more amiable spirit into a creepy-sounding ghost candle.

There’s a scene where Scrooge runs away from an evil horse-drawn carriage. During this scene, he shrinks in size and starts to speak in a high-pitched voice. The high-pitched voice becomes distracting and takes away from the levity of a scene that comes right after the chase scene.

On the positive side, the CGI architecture is pretty well done and Robert Zemeckis does treat us to some nice sweeping aerial shots. Aside from that, this 2009 film doesn’t really do anything for the story that other adaptations haven’t already done better.

If you have never seen a film adaption of A Christmas Carol and don’t mind performance-capture animation, then this might be a pretty good movie for you. Still, with better adaptations of Dickens’ classic already in existence, why bother?