Monday, December 14, 2009

Another Christmas Carol, Another Lame Zemeckis 3-D Effort

Robert Zemeckis is one of the most talented directors in Hollywood, and he is a great innovator. But his attempt to make one digital motion capture film after another has been one of the least successful periods of his career. In the last five years, the filmmaker who brought us Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and Cast Away has delivered The Polar Express, Beowulf, and now A Christmas Carol. For Zemeckis, perhaps he was challenged by the technical innovation, and therefore saw it as an opportunity to have a lot of fun. And I would imagine these motion capture films would be a lot of fun to work on...but that doesn't always translate to a fun time for the audience.

Of all the classic stories to adapt for digital 3-D, A Christmas Carol sounds like a great idea, especially with Jim Carrey playing Scrooge. Indeed, Carrey is the film's biggest highlight, both in performance and presentation. The malleable actor can oftentimes be dismissed as a silly clown, but his talent is tremendous, and on full display here, where he buries himself into the Scrooge character with humbug-gusto. It is a great performance...Carrey's British accent at times sounds more convincing than his actual British counterparts, and Scrooge's emotional journey -- the heart of the story -- is effective because Carrey is so willing to travel from one emotive pole to the other.

Scrooge is also this Christmas Carol's technical highlight; the character is Zemeckis and Co.'s most pristine creation in the extremely short history of motion capture technology. Every facial tic, every subtle intricacy is vividly presented. The feat is a remarkable success...if only the rest of the film was rendered with such painstaking quality. If Carrey's Scrooge is motion capture's best creation, the remainder of A Christmas Carol is its worst, a hazy boondoggle of unappealing visuals that plays directly into most criticisms of the format. "Dead eyes" has always been criticism number one for most, and this film one-ups that unfortunate problem by also crafting characters that look like walking dough. Not remotely realistic, and not even believably fanciful...just ugly. As for the environment surrounding the characters, some scenes looks appealing, and others are transparent computer creations. The film looks as if the level of care put into the work shifted harshly from scene to scene and character to character.

The story is the story. If you've seen or read it before, there is nothing new for you here. One good Zemeckis addition (he also wrote the screenplay) is allowing each of Scrooge's ghost visits be scary. The film's marketing has wisely noted that "some scenes may be scary for young viewers," and it's true -- Scrooge was always intended to go on a frightening hypothetical journey, and if there is one element Zemeckis truly captures, it is the fright factor. But other than Jim Carrey, the Scrooge character design, and the occasional dark tone, A Christmas Carol is another unfortunate use of motion capture technology, one that never looks as good as it is supposed to look, and never offers anything new enough to make the story interesting. After more than five years and three movies, it might be time for Zemeckis to take a break from the motion capture stuff...or take classes from Peter Jackson.

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