Having three children helps me have a good sense of what kids can handle in a movie, both in terms of imagery, pacing, storyline and overall cinematic experience. And it's that background that lets me state unequivocally that Robert Zemeckis has completely missed the boat with this new animated A Christmas Carol and instead of creating a heartwarming film about how even the most unhappy person can be redeemed, he's created a terrifying vision that will prove far too intense for most of his target audience.
The story of Ebenezer Scrooge is a classic Christmas tale, where he's the stingiest, most unhappy man in Victorian London, responding to cheery "Merry Christmas" wishes with "bah, humbug". As voiced (and acted) by Jim Carrey, he's a suitably sour person, an accountant who has long since given up on humanity and instead prefers the tangible benefits of gold and money.
The look of the film is a visually stunning but surprisingly flat (even in 3D), and it utilizes the same animated motion capture of live action that was first unveiled in the awkward and unsuccessful Polar Express, and unengaging Beowulf, both also directed by Zemeckis. A tip to you, Mr. Zemeckis: motion capture isn't really working. You're getting caught up in the technology and the results continue to be unpleasantly lifeless.
More to the point, though, there aren't just a minute or two of terrifying imagery in A Christmas Carol as you transition from one scene to another, there are sustained scenes where the imagery is more suitable for Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell than a Disney animated feature being released for Christmastime. If you have kids, you'll definitely want to skip this one.
I should also come clean and admit that I find Jim Carrey has a bad habit of overacting and many of the films he's been involved with have suffered from the directors inability to rein him in. It's almost as if Carrey was destined to be a silent film star, back when actors needed to dramatically, floridly, overact, so that it was conveyed to an audience still new to cinema.
Not surprisingly, he has many voice roles in this film, including that of Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge as a Young Boy, Scrooge as a Teenage Boy, Scrooge as a Young Man, Scrooge as a Middle-Aged Man, Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Given screen time, A Christmas Carol really is almost a one-man show and I'm sure Carrey had a terrific time creating and sustaining all of these characters during the recording sessions.
But he lost track, and coupled with the lifeless motion capture technology, forgot that the ostensible genre of A Christmas Carol was supposed to be "family film" not "horror film". In particular the hearty Viking Ghost of Christmas Present, a towering 18-foot commanding presence, was a completely missed character. There was malevolence in his characterizations that I'm just not at all used to seeing in any of the many, many cinematic tellings of Scrooge's life story and final redemption.
Scrooge looking on, frightened, as Marley's ghost warns him of things yet to come
The technical accomplishment of the animation was still impressive, don't get me wrong. The opening sequence of the wintry Victorian London fly through (which was most assuredly reminiscent of the opening sequence of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) was terrific and exciting, but the "fly through London" scene transition was used again and again, to the point where it was boring. A simple example of technology getting in the way of good film making.
Gary Oldman voiced the harried and abused Bob Crachit, the accounting assistant who works for Scrooge but retains his optimism and heart of gold, even wishing Scrooge a Merry Christmas when he knows that his boss will just yell at him for wasting time on meaningless statements. Oldman also voices Crachit's crippled son Tiny Tim, along with Scrooge's former business partner Marley, and did a good job in all three. Indeed, in the scene where Crachit and his wife lament the probable fate of their crippled son, there were tears in my eyes.
One of the scenes of Christmas past did pique my interest: we learn that Scrooge as a younger man had fallen in love with the beautiful Belle (Robin Wright Penn) and that they married. Later she tells him that she's "releasing him from their contract" of marriage because it's clear he's fallen more in love with money than with her. That's the basis of an interesting movie unto itself but here it gets precious little screen time, leaving me with questions about why they fell in love, what happened during their relationship to sour him, and what happened to her once they parted.
The warm fuzzies didn't last long, however, before more frightening images filled the screen, notably including the demonic children Want and Ignorance. If I could find a still of those two, you'd instantly see how child-unfriendly the film is, but if that's not enough, a sustained sequence of Scrooge being chased by spectral black horses with glowing red eyes, carrying along the Death-like Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come was over the top and had adults in the audience looking scared.
It's an extraordinary challenge to take a story like A Christmas Carol and turn it into a movie, when it's been filmed and told over 30 times in the last hundred years, including versions released in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008. Perhaps the vision was "let's make this a really intense and thrilling experience" which they've accomplished with this latest release. The problem is, they lost their audience along the way.
My advice to you? Skip this one and find a film that your children will be able to both appreciate and survive, without finding their Christmas season plagued by nightmares.