It was in 1843 that celebrated writer Charles Dickens created one of the most iconic symbols of Christmas with his publication of A Christmas Carol. It was a cautionary tale for an industrial revolution that was getting caught up in its material worship. Dickens intended the story both to entertain and to put the spotlight on what he considered already then was an over-commercialization of the Christmas season. Little did he know that his very story would become a huge part of that commercialization. While the writer gave us many memorable characters like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Little Nell, perhaps none have become so well known as Scrooge and Tiny Tim. It’s certainly true that no other story has been used as much in film, television and on the stage.
For most modern folks it all started in 1951, almost 100 years after the story’s publication, with the definitive film staring Alastair Sim. That movie has captured the hearts of several generations. But it didn’t begin nor did it stop there. The three Christmas ghosts have haunted over 100 film and television versions over the years. Even Fred Sanford was visited by the specters, resulting in at least a temporary temperance of his biting grouchiness. With such a classic tale, it was only a matter of time before the computer-animated genre and the motion-capture technology were used to deliver a new movie for the holiday masses. Thank our lucky stars, my gentle reader, that it was Walt Disney Studios that took up the task. The results could have been rather unfortunate.
The story is pretty much the same as it has always been. Ebenezer Scrooge (Carrey) is the owner of a London counting house. He is a cynical old man who has little time for love of his fellow man. He is particularly annoyed at holiday time. He very grudgingly allows his clerk, Bob Cratchit (Oldman) the day off. He considers it picking his pocket to provide payment while getting no work in return. Needless to say, the man is not a popular one in the community. His nephew Fred (Firth) attempts to be closer with his lonely uncle, but is constantly rebuffed. Scrooge simply has no Christmas spirit. On the 7th anniversary of his partner’s death, he is visited by the tormented spirit of his deceased partner. The man carries a warning that Scrooge is forging his own eternal chains of bondage, if he doesn’t soon change his ways. Of course, Scrooge isn’t impressed, deciding there was far more gravy than grave in the visitation. But Marley promises that on three subsequent nights, Scrooge will be visited by three spirits. The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to his youth and reminds him that he was not always so bitter. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows him just how despised he is among those who know him best. He also shows the plight of his clerk and his ill son, Tiny Tim, who will die if things are not altered from their present course. Finally, The Ghost of Christmas Future delivers the most frightening revelations of his current state of affairs and their inevitable consequences. Scrooge fears this spirit most of all, and with good reason. Of course, we all know that Scrooge changes and gains a reputation for always keeping Christmas in his heart.
Again, it’s quite faithful. There are a few moments that did have me rolling my eyes a bit. It just wouldn’t be a Jim Carrey film without some added hijinx. There’s an extended scene of Scrooge as “mini-Scrooge” being chased through London. It’s an acceptable level of creativity that doesn’t harm the overall charm of the film at all.
I saw the film with visiting family last Thanksgiving. It was in 3D at the time. This Blu-ray release is not in 3D. I don’t think very much is lost, however. While I’m generally a fan of the 3D movement, I think it works best when it is required the least. A good 3D presentation will work fine as an entertaining movie even if you strip away the magical element. This film absolutely holds up as a 2D image. There are obvious moments where you can tell that some 3D effect has been utilized, but for the most part, this film is entirely enjoyable in this format.
This is not your typical computer-animated film. The actor’s performances were captured through the motion-capture or “mo-cap” process. The actors are outfitted with bodysuits and dots all over their faces. These provide a tracking system for the computers. The action is recorded through several cameras and used to control the animated figures in the computer. This technology allows the animated characters to deliver nuanced performances in the movie. The actors can use facial expressions and use body language unique to their own performance. Every little quirk of that performance is captured and translated to the image. It’s almost like they are playing a virtual-reality video game. The result is an animated feature that has the realism of a live performance.
Just as important as the motion-capture performances is the animation itself. Humans are still not as good in CG as most other elements. There is still just a little something doll-like in their appearance. It’s a technological wall that has yet to be scaled. Add the performance captures, and just a little more life sneaks into the inanimate creations. Add nearly photo-real environments, and the story comes that much more alive. As the “camera” pans through this industrial-revolution London cityscape, the images are quite impressive. There is texture to such things as brick buildings and iron gates that make it very difficult at times to truly tell if you are watching something real or not. Give a huge amount of credit to one of the best animation teams on the planet. As much care went into creating these environments as went into the performances. This is a believable place. Just another element that makes this something more than merely an advanced “cartoon” as some have described the technology.
There’s no question but that Jim Carrey was the perfect choice here. I was more than a little bit skeptical that he would be. The actor has the tendency to overplay a character. He can’t help but focus the attention on himself instead of the story. Perhaps it’s the limitations of the animated character, albeit with motion capture, but Carrey did allow himself to be taken over by the Scrooge character here. His voice is almost unrecognizable. I thought he sounded very much like Patrick Stewart at times. He manages to completely immerse himself in the part. If Carrey could do this more often, I suspect I’d be a bigger fan. I’m not ready to say that this performance supplants the Sims portrayal, but I am willing to say that this should also go down as a classic performance that is likely to see life many Christmases from now.
The supporting cast includes an underused Gary Oldman as Bob. This version of the story focuses much more on Scrooge than the original story does. There is very little of the Tiny Tim story here. Colin Firth is even less used as Scrooge’s nephew Fred. Again the focus is almost 100% on Scrooge. Two of the ghosts are pretty much the traditional design. The Ghost of Christmas Present retains the regal king look while The Ghost of Christmas Future wears the traditional guise of The Grim Reaper. I was terribly disappointed by The Ghost of Christmas Past. The spirit is a bobbing ball of fire. He looks very much like a cartoon or mascot character. They lost me on that design.
A Christmas Carol is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average of almost 35 mbps. The colors aren’t really the most impressive here. Everything has a sort of dark nature to it, so colors appear intentionally drained most of the time. There are festive moments where some color is allowed to break through, but it’s never the color that will blow you away. It’s the detail and textures that you’ll find quite impressive. A ton of this stuff is photo-realistic. The high-definition presentation really allows you to enjoy the care that went into every minute detail of the production design. Black levels are picture-perfect throughout. The print is excellent as should be expected from a digital source. I did notice the slightest artifact in a couple of instances, but you’ll struggle to find them.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does a fanciful ride for your money. Surrounds are put to wonderfully good use throughout. There is plenty of ear candy, particularly as Scrooge embarks on his adventures with the spirits. The sub often comes alive at just the right moment. The score adds some exhilarating moments without ever intruding on the viewer’s senses. Dialog is perfect.
One of the best Blu-ray viewing mode options can be found on this release:
Behind The Carol: Here you get a picture-in-picture option that allows you to see the actors giving their motion-capture performances. It’s like getting a whole other version of the film. I highly recommend you give this option a try.
Capturing Dickens – A Novel Retelling: (14:43) This piece is hosted by Jacquie Barnbrook and is often a bit too silly for my tastes. It does offer you a good look behind the scenes of the motion-capture process.
Countdown To Christmas: This is an Advent Calendar where you open a door for each day to see an animated gift. It’s a bit tedious for my tastes.
On Set With Sammi Hanratty: (1:52) The child actor gives you a very brief peek behind the scenes.
Deleted Scenes: There are 6 in all at various stages of completion.
DVD and Digital Copies
All in all, I have to say this film will become a wonderful addition to the holiday collection of films that you are likely to gather the family to watch. The Blu-ray presentation is solid enough that you’ll really enjoy the intricate production design, to be sure. I’d say that you’ll want to buy, rather than rent this one. You never know when the family might be around and you’ll want this one near at hand. That’s what family is for. Let this be the perfect beginning to your holiday season. And as Tiny Tim is fond of saying: “God bless us everyone“.
Disney is offering a $10 on-line coupon for the film. Bang it here to take advantage of the offer: Coupon