You will be pleasantly surprised if you went into “Disney’s A Christmas Carol”, directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by Zemeckis, based on the novel by Charles Dickens, more out of habit than anything else, thinking it was like being re-gifted with something droll for Christmas. It’s Dickens’s tale all right, but the details are surrealistic rendered, the voices and characterizations are spot-on, especially that of Jim Carrey’s Ebenezer Scrooge, and its designed as more of a coming-to-the-light story than a coming-to-Jesus one.
Zemeckis’s plucky rendering of the Christmas classic seems new, feels new, is new. In place of stale humbuggery and melodramatic platitudes, you get exquisite production values which take the-story-that-does-not-bear-reiterating and spruces it up with surreal flourishes which in turn gives you a new appreciation of the rejuvenation of one Ebenezer Scrooge.
Sure, at first Jim Carrey’s Scrooge is a still a grump, a hunk of coal, a major un-festive drag but he’s a sympathetic scoundrel. The film nails the grittiness, the despair, the texture of Dickensian London, the rich-but-not-enjoying-it circumstances of Scrooge’s Addams Family lifestyle, and the gap between Victorian haves and haves-not. It especially shines in its supernatural depiction of the hell or else an approximation of hell toward which Scrooge finds himself headed. It doesn’t hurt that he blasts through time at warp speed chaperoned by a flaming ghost, a Viking warrior, and a shadow all the more frightening because there’s nothing there, there.
But all this serves to make Scrooge’s resurrection more genuine, more heart-warming, as it comes from some place especially grim, bleak, and infernal. The scenes from Christmas Past are downright Norman Rockwellian (albeit filtered through Aurey Beardsley and Salvador Dali), down to the lyrical trajectories of individual snowflakes. The reconciliation of Uncle and Nephew would warm the cockles of anyone’s frigid heart. Design-wise it’s a cinematic romp through a re-birth canal, from darkness to light, from potential to good-deeds, from isolation to community, and a well-done one at that. It makes you think of a Flemish Renaissance triptych: ghastly-rendered suffering, angelically-produced resurrection.
Carrey’s Scrooge is rickety, despicable, and, with that twiggy physique, seemingly incapable of surviving being dropped from great heights, pummeled on cobblestoned strreets, and plunged into fiery abysses. Though probably richer than JK Rawlings, he doesn’t take care of himself, physically, emotionally, and materially. He’s a miser, a misanthrope, a Grinch on stilts. His dwelling is all scale and no ornament, more a tomb than a mansion. It’s small wonder his friends, employees, and faux-colleagues mock him so.
Even though the script is so familiar, there are no pauses of yeah-I-know-that. There can’t be: we’re careening through past, present, and future, faster than fast, but not so fast that we don’t notice shimmering details, extraordinary points-of-view, and Google Maps configurations of topography and physiognomy.
Lurking behind all the visual effects is this intriguing idea as well: it isn’t so much the things Scrooge sees which make him over into a model of propriety and humility, it’s the fact that he’s been granted an evening of God-like omniscience – as time collapses in on him, he can see and hear everything – which makes him become more, um, human, more able to acknowledge and appreciate his own frailties as well as those of people around him.
At heart the film’s a magnificent bit of storytelling. The tone is ponderous then gay, the pace is whirligig but when Scrooge’s goes time-traveling, all is relatively calm, as if he’s in the eye of a tornado. The story and the way it’s told are perfectly joined. Despair and joy are each perfectly rendered. Three scenes are worth the price of admission. Outside Scrooge’s window hovers a flotilla of spiritual naughts led by Marley, adrift in a purgatory of coulda woulda shoulda lives. Scrooge’s conversion occurs at his own gravesite, when he plunges down some fire and brimstone hole in the Earth reminiscent of anything in “2012.” And there’s a parlor dance scene that is as buoyant and uplifting as that in the latest cinematic translation of “Pride and Prejudice.”
Perhaps the story around Tiny Tim gets a little treacly. Perhaps you might cringe when the love of his life dumps him because he chooses mammon over matrimony. But the film’s message – you can’t take it with you – rings clarion clear and makes you wonder, hope, pray that somewhere in some London attic is squirreled away a sequel.