DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL: The Ghost of Animated Christmas Performance Capture

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009) – Directed by Robert Zemeckis – Starring Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Cary Elwes, Sammi Hanratty, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Ryan Ochoa, and Molly C. Quinn.

When I watched Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol the other night and wasn’t remotely moved by it, I began to wonder if maybe I’d hit my limit on adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic. Combine this with my general dislike of Jim Carrey and my general dislike of performance capture and my hopes weren’t too high for DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL adaptation to win me over. In fact, I only watched it because Netflix had it streaming and I wanted something playing in the background while I wrote the review for Love Actually.

It was to my incredible surprise that by the time Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman) had threatened and warned Ebeneezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) about what his future held for him I was totally engrossed in the film, and by the time it ended I was willing to rank DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL among my favorite adaptations of Dickens’ tale.

This is a prime example of why I like doing these themed months; without spending the month purposely looking for holiday films to watch I wouldn’t bother with a film starring Jim Carrey and made with performance capture, especially when there are other versions of this story that I wanted to see more. (Like Scrooged. How I managed to go all this time without seeing Scrooged is beyond me, but it’s an oversight that’s since been corrected. Expect it to be the next film reviewed.) But because I’m on the lookout for holiday movies this month and because it was streaming on Netflix I’ve found a great film to add to the holiday rotation. DISNEY’S adaptation strikes the perfect balance between being a kid’s movie and an adult’s movie, and Robert Zemeckis has wrung seemingly every bit of humor, fright, and action possible out of this story.

But did it have to be performance capture?

Performance capture is just generally pretty creepy-looking. I enjoyed Zemeckis’ previous movies made with this technique (The Polar Express, Beowulf), but my enjoyment was in spite of the performance capture and not enhanced by it. After seeing several movies made with this technique now, I still have to wonder … why? It’s not as good as live-action, it’s not as good as hand-drawn animation, and it’s not as good as CGI. It just looks … off. If the movie is good I’ll suffer through it, but it’s usually not a pleasant watch.

It’s to Zemeckis’ credit that A CHRISTMAS CAROL is the best performance capture I’ve seen; it looks good enough that I actually didn’t mind watching most of it. I’m not sure why most of the actors play multiple roles (Carrey is not only Scrooge, but all of the Ghosts of Christmas; Oldman is Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, and Tiny Tim) except maybe to save some cash for the studio, but it can be a bit disconcerting to see vaguely familiar faces popping up on multiple bodies.

What helps keep things righted, however, is that Zemeckis just might have done the best job in any Christmas Carol adaptation of making London look interesting.

Because honestly, mid-nineteenth century London normally looks like a wet fart – stinky, soggy, and brown.

That’s nothing against the city, but a city that big from that era was awash in greys, browns, and blacks. When you combine that with the general dreary tone of the story, there’s not a lot of room for color in A Christmas Carol, but Zemeckis has done a masterful job of infusing Scrooge’s adventure with a real vibrancy. This adaptation moves, and it moves in loads of color. London is still the same drab, dreary place it always is, but Zemeckis has infused every possible aspect of the story that he can with color and movement.

Zemeckis wisely builds off the cold, muted, dull colors of London by filling out the palette with the Ghosts. As the film progresses, Zemeckis brings more and more color into the film as the action picks up. The Ghost of Christmas Past, for instance, is a flickering, white candle person, while the Ghost of Christmas Present is a big, fat redhead. The first is wispy and quiet while the second is rotund and loud. By the time we get to the Ghost of Christmas Future, Zemeckis slams the palette all the way back down with the midnight black ghost and his nightmarish horses.

There’s plenty of action, too. I absolutely love the way the film treats the ghostly visions, with Scrooge’s contemporary environment often dissolving to reveal the vision. The best example of this comes with the Ghost of Christmas Present as the floor of their ornate room dissolves to reveal the city of London. The room goes swooping over the city, giving us a wonderful and rich vision of the bright, warm room and the harsh, cold city. As creepy as the human characters can be to look at, the environments look amazing.

As for the story itself, it’s A Christmas Carol, and importantly, Zemeckis keeps Carrey contained inside his characters. Maybe Carrey’s at a point in his career where he just can’t go crazy for the entire shoot, or maybe the performance capture process forces him to play roles rather than allowing his roles to become a Carrey caricature. Whatever the case, he’s rarely been better than he is as Scrooge. He’s so good you rarely notice it’s him, whereas the Past and Present Ghosts see Carrey’s features shine through. I like how Zemeckis decides to have Scrooge spend Christmas dinner with his nephew, even if the performance capture version of Colin Firth is creepy to look at.

And that’s what it really comes down to with DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL – it’s a really good adaptation that is, at times, really creepy to look at. It’s a bit disconcerting to see Carrey’s and Oldman’s image shining through so many characters, but the story is really well told, and it’s perfectly paced. Even with the creepiness of performance capture, this is a gorgeous film to watch and completely engaging from start to finish.

Be sure to check out the Holiday Review Index for all the Holiday-themed reviews to be found at Atomic Anxiety.

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5 thoughts on “DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL: The Ghost of Animated Christmas Performance Capture

  1. I rented this on the back of your review (!). Christmas Carol is one of my favourite stories and I’ve probably seen most adaptations. Like you I usually run from Jim Carrey (with the exception of ‘The Truman Show’) but I was able to ignore it was him for the film. I also liked many of the touches, particularly how the Spirit of Christmas Future is often Scrooge’s own shadow. However I couldn’t see the point of the nightmare hearse nor why Scrooge should be shrunk in size. Was this meant to reflect his emotional nature?

    I made the mistake of watching the ‘extras’ on the DVD. It is annoying to hear the creators state that this is the best adaptation of Christmas Carol ever! My favourite remains the one with George C Scott. I like how he actually brings humour to Scrooge from early on and a certain dignity to the role.

    So, I liked this adaptation, but it loses major points for the hearse/shrinking scenes which are not in the original story and which, in my opinion, don’t add anything to the story.

  2. Glad you liked it, Chrys! Looking forward to this year’s DOCTOR WHO Christmas special tonight. Hope it’s a good one! (But I’m guessing you already know if it’s a good one or not!)

  3. Pingback: “A Christmas Carol”: The many faces of Jim Carrey « Radu presents: The Movie-Photo Blog

  4. The answer to “why motion capture” and to some extent the commenter’s question about “why shrinkage” is pretty simple– the 3D process. I believe the film was also set for IMAX 3D and the ability to render a scene in a computer gives you more visual options (even some subtle and unconscious ones) to provide the audience

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