Monday, December 12, 2011

Day 12: A Christmas Carol (2009)

"Keep Christmas in your own way and let me keep it in mine."

There has been endless debate about wholly created CGI characters and their viability in first rate motion pictures. Gollum in Lord of the Rings is the widely acknowledged start of their acceptance as a suitable presence in a movie, but like so many other things that occurred in Lord of the Rings, other filmmakers began throwing these characters into their movies, whether they worked, or even belonged there, or not. But as their prominence grew, so too did the discussion of the so-called "uncanny valley." This essentially deals with the fact that they may look like humans to a great extent, but there's something missing that makes them seem eerie and inhuman. Usually it's in the eyes, there's no spark of life visible in their eyes and the characters end up falling victim to the "doll eye" syndrome. All the characteristics are there of a human eye, but there's just something missing.

This really picked up steam with the release of three Robert Zemeckis-directed motion-capture films. It started with 2004's The Polar Express, continued with 2007's Beowulf, and wrapped-up with 2009's A Christmas Carol. Incidentally, all of these films were released theatrically in 3-D, which is yet another source of endless debate among cinephiles, but in animation is usually executed well as the filmmakers are savvy enough to understand that 3-D is about the depth of your scenery more than just having shit fly out of the screen.

I watched A Christmas Carol for the first time the other night (not in 3-D) and I have to say that I enjoyed it. It didn't blow my mind and it certainly isn't the best cinematic telling of Dickens' novel (that distinction belongs to Alastair Sim's 1951 version of Scrooge), but it's faithful enough to the original without being slavishly so, and it has a damn good cast. Jim Carrey plays Scrooge and all three ghosts, and does a serviceable job as Scrooge (he clearly took most if not all of his inspiration from Sim's portrayal), but he's outstanding as The Ghost of Christmas Present in particular, as he's able to cut loose and play jovial, at which he excels.

Gary Oldman plays Bob Cratchit and Jacob Marley (as well as Tiny Tim, although they have a child do the voice) and I don't need to tell you that he brings his A-game to the proceedings, particularly as Marley. The scene where Marley's jaw comes dislodged and he has to hit it from the bottom to speak is not only creepy, it's brilliantly done. Colin Firth is great as Nephew Fred, Bob Hoskins is fantastic as Fezziwig, and Cary Elwes & Robin Wright-Penn are also good in multiple roles.

The real question I'm left with, however, is whether this needed to be animated at all. It seems to have added an unnecessarily expensive element to what could have been a solid, straight-forward adaptation of the story. I guess the debate comes down to, just because the technology exists, does that mean it has to be used. Zemeckis is a director who's always been at the cutting-edge of technological advances. I remember watching Death Becomes Her in the theater and being blown away by the effects. Forrest Gump is obviously another watershed moment, but then he resurrected the same effects in Contact, inserting then-President Bill Clinton into footage, and it made me wonder, would he have done it had he not already pioneered the technique in his last film?

It seems that Image Movers, the digital effects house behind this technology, has gone belly-up, so this is likely to be the last of these films on this scale for a while (shelving the planned adaptation of Yellow Submarine which, for me, was equal parts dreaded and anticipated). I have never been bothered by this "uncanny valley" that appears to be a deal-breaker for so many people. Because it's animation, I accept it as such. Some people seem to want to treat these as live-action films, and therefore expect that the actors look 100% like real people. It's likely not going to happen anytime soon, but who knows? The technology has advanced at such a rapid rate in the last twenty years that there's no telling where we'll be twenty years from now.

A word of warning to parents, this movie is terrifying. I watched it with my five-year old Clementine, and she was genuinely frightened by some scenes. It's PG, but I wouldn't watch it with anyone younger than seven or eight.

Tomorrow's film will be George Lucas' directorial debut THX-1138, the 2004 Director's Cut.

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