Looking Back At A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009 Jim Carrey Version)

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Tony’s animated about the Jim Carrey version of a Christmas classic.


A Christmas Carol is a work of staggering genius. It has been done, redone, re-interpreted, updated, made musical, done with puppets, and, much like most of Shakespeare’s work, it comes shining through whatever is thrown at it, the essential purity of its message of looking beyond the graspingly material and caring about everyone in your world, takes hold of whatever medium, whatever actors you use, and speaks directly from the genius of Dickens to the world in which you live. You have to work really, really hard, or have no business being in the entertainment business, to ruin A Christmas Carol, because Dickens has done all the work for you. Whatever you bring to it will be more or less a matter of nuance, of performance, and of making it relevant to your particular day and age should you want to, or letting it stand as the Victorian allegory it always was.

You could argue that the continuing relevance of A Christmas Carol is a sad indictment of our capitalist society. Or you could say the actual society is irrelevant, and there will always be miserable people who don’t want to look outside their window, and whose path is insular and isolated. You will find Scrooges everywhere, irrespective of time or society. Hence the whole ‘staggering genius’ thing.

All of which is by way of saying A Christmas Carol is almost tamper-proof so long as you treat the original with the respect it deserves. Do that, and it will see you through.

Which brings us to Jim Carrey’s animated version of the Christmas classic. Carrey has a reputation for his bigger, wilder, more over-the-top physical performances, and it’s a reputation by no means undeserved – his breakout movies, Ace Ventura Pet Detective and The Mask, made use of his physicality and his rubber face to great comic effect, and several of his subsequent movies have had at least sections which allow Carrey to put those particular skills to work.


But at least as many haven’t. Here, as in some of his stronger, more naturalistic roles, Carrey plays it more or less straight, allowing the situations and the dialogue to tell the story without being trapped within his own reputation. The motion capture process helps him escape from that reputation, allowing Carrey to be both young and old Scrooge, and to lend differing performances to all three of the spirits who change his life. It’s also a process that allows some of the other cast, such as Gary Oldman, to play multiple roles (here, Bob Cratchitt, Tiny Tim and Jacob Marley), which is both efficient filmmaking and an artistic challenge of the kind that actors love to master.

In terms of the treatment of the original story, Carrey and Co are clearly mostly of the ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ persuasion – Carrey’s version is remarkably faithful to the dialogue and action of the original most of the way through, though that leaves some scenes, like Young Ebenezer at school and Fan’s visit and perhaps most particularly Belle’s releasing of Ebenezer from his engagement to her, feeling rapidly delivered and somewhat lacking in emotional punch.

So Carrey’s Christmas Carol is an uneven watch: initially, it anchors the character of Scrooge well, the visuals and the performance matching some directorial decisions from Robert Zemeckis to make Scrooge both real and somehow an avatar of his own coldness, a force of human darkness moving through the world with a ‘Humbug!’ on his lips. Zemeckis for instance has carol singers quail and come to a stuttering stop as Scrooge moves past them, essentially making Scrooge a fourth spirit in the story, the Spirit of Christmas Death. Each of the other spirits is well delivered by Carrey and the animators, and the other players too get into the spirit of A Christmas Carol, Colin Firth playing a burly but ebullient Fred, and Lesley Manville as Mrs Cratchitt sticks to both the words and the sentiment of the original, while giving it enough vinegar to make you understand the hardships the Cratchitts have probably been through as a result of Scrooge’s tightness. Robin Wright Penn, despite playing both Fan and Belle, (another interesting doubling of roles as the women Scrooge has loved in his life), seems wasted with barely a handful of lines, and neither of the roles punch at the weight they should.


Where Carrey’s version goes most wrong though is in a progressive love of the medium over the story, which means we get scenes of Scrooge flown high as a rocket when he snuffs out the Spirit of Christmas Past, of the floor dissolving when the Spirit of Christmas Present shows him glimpses of the city, and most particularly, when he’s being directed by the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come, the film takes a bizarre diversion, with a spirit horse and carriage chasing him down streets, and Scrooge, to evade them, shrinking down to the size of a mouse, when the pursuit continues on a micro-scale. The whole sequence is invented fresh for this movie, and seems to be an excuse to pad out the final spirit encounter with ‘clever stuff we can do with animation,’ and more than a little, to make the final stage of Scrooge’s journey into enlightenment look and feel like a video game, with the character running away from a pursuer, dodging obstacles, using special moves to shrink and grow and so on. The scene goes on for more than five minutes, and while it may well appeal to younger viewers, those who know A Christmas Carol may well find themselves bemused and bored by a pursuit that weakens this version of the story as a whole.

These sequences of animation over storytelling, and particularly this final sequence of mini-Scrooging, detract from what is otherwise a faithful, well-performed version of A Christmas Carol, which nevertheless, by minimising the screen-time of the women in Scrooge’s life, feels a little too much like a Carrey vehicle, albeit a mostly well-judged one.

The Jim Carrey version of A Christmas Carol gives us one of cinema’s better Scrooges, and a more or less faithful telling of the story. Where it comes unstuck is in unnecessary padding late in the day, in an attempt to make it kid-friendly at a point where viewers will have already either bought into the idea or not, and in a love of animation cleverness for its own sake.

Still – once you’ve started to watch this version, you’ll appreciate Carrey’s take on the lead role compared to other leading Scrooges like the George C Scott version, Carrey and Zemeckis understanding fully the depths of cold and hard-heartedness Scrooge needs in order to work as a redemption story. Here, he absolutely works on that level, leaving you with a more fundamentally satisfying Christmas Carol than some other leading versions.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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