Technology finally has caught up with Charles Dickens’ imagination.
Jim Carrey and Robert Zemeckis’ new take on “A Christmas Carol” brings to life the fantasy about miser Ebenezer Scrooge’s holiday redemption in a way old Hollywood never could have dreamed.
Animated adaptations have captured some of Dickens’ flights of fancy and fantastic imagery, while the best live-action versions have put touchingly human faces on Scrooge, cheery nephew Fred, maltreated clerk Bob Cratchit and hopeful cripple Tiny Tim.
Opening Friday, “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” manages both. Zemeckis applies the performance-capture technology he used on “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf” to present Carrey and company in fine dramatic form, with computer animation richly recreating 1840s London and Scrooge’s bewildering journey through his own past, present and future.
“When you read Dickens, it’s an incredibly surreal story, and of course, the earlier adaptations were limited by what you could do with the tools of cinema at the time,” Zemeckis said.
“The whole mission here was to truly re-envision the movie in a way no one had ever seen it before. That came about in that when I did ‘Beowulf,’ I realized I am now working in a form where we can reintroduce audiences to these classics in a way that makes it very modern, yet they can be these very familiar and classic stories. So starting to think about that, the first thing that popped into my head was my favorite story of all time, ‘Christmas Carol.’”
Performance capture is a hybrid of live action and digital animation. Actors do their scenes on a bare sound stage, wearing skintight suits covered with sensors, reference points for digital cameras to record their body language and expressions in 360-degree detail.
Costumes, sets, props, visual effects and alterations to the actors’ features are filled in later by computer animators.
While the technology sounds a bit soul-killing in terms of drama, actors say it’s a surprisingly unfettered way to create a performance.
“It sounds paradoxical, because obviously, we’re in a world or sophisticated technology, and there’s a huge amount of preparation in order to make it possible,” said Colin Firth, who plays Scrooge’s nephew. “But there’s no fourth wall to play to, like there is in theater. Even if you’re playing theater in the round, you have to be careful not to mask your colleagues, and you’ve got to play to the people way up there. There’s none of that here. … It’s more like playing in your bedroom as a kid.”
Past live-action adaptations such as Alastair Sim’s classic 1951 version were restricted to a few physical sets to stand in for old Britain, while the ghosts that conduct Scrooge through his nights of penance looked like garishly done-up mortals, rarely achieving the grotesque qualities of the nightmare Dickens crafted.
Zemeckis’ “Carol” swoops through London, from birds-eye views of the city’s sprawl to claustrophobic tours of the dingiest streets. Scrooge’s trek back to his boyhood is a dizzy flight from the city to the countryside. Even the lighting is authentic to the era.
“The other thing that’s very subtle that just excited me no end was being able to light the whole movie with candlelight,” Zemeckis said. “How great is that? Because we know there were only two forms of light. There was overcast sunlight and candlelight, firelight. That’s how the world looked in those days.”
Carrey — who does Scrooge at every age, from boy to young man to old skinflint — also plays the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, each spirit spectral and creepy in a way that past adaptations rarely managed.
His co-stars also play multiple roles. Among them: Gary Oldman as Cratchit, Tiny Tim and the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s former partner; Robin Wright Penn as both Scrooge’s doomed young sister and his lost love; and Bob Hoskins as both the miser’s big-hearted old boss Fezziwig and a seedy pawnbroker.
A day after seeing Zemeckis’ finished film, Hoskins said it took him on a journey back to his own childhood.
“You’ve got probably one of the greatest stories that was ever written translated by one of the greatest imaginations in Hollywood today,” said Hoskins, who starred in Zemeckis’ 1988 cartoon and live-action combo “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”
“When I first learned to read, I was about 7, and I read two books. One was ‘Treasure Island’ and one was ‘Christmas Carol,’ and it frightened the … life out of me. It really scared me. And ever since, I’ve seentranslations of it on film, cartoons, and it’s never had that fear. This did. Last night, it really scared me.”
“A Christmas Carol” is one of the most told and retold stories, a ritual acted out in such incarnations as Albert Finney’s musical “Scrooge,” Bill Murray’s contemporary comedy “Scrooged” and Patrick Stewart’s one-man stage show.
Vanessa Williams played the lead as Ebony Scrooge in the TV musical “A Diva’s Christmas Carol,” while Henry Winkler did a Depression-era TV version with “An American Christmas Carol.”
Family adaptations have featured the Muppets, the Flintstones, Barbie dolls, Mickey Mouse and Mr. Magoo.
“It doesn’t matter how it’s told or how crudely or if it’s on stage or it’s animated. Whatever it is, it’s still that story. It always works. The story is so great, it always works,” said Steve Starkey, who produced “A Christmas Carol” along with Zemeckis and Jack Rapke. But “this is the first time that a movie has lived up to what went on in my poor little child’s mind from the time it was first read to me.”
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