I'm not sure I've ever seen a more successful title sequence than what we get in Disney's "A Christmas Carol" (2009). This motion-capture CGI animated film features an opening that's so richly atmospheric and evocative of Victorian England that your jaw can't help but drop. Once you get past the dark shots of Scrooge signing the death certificate for his partner (and swiping the pennies from his eyelids), then waling out into the bright streets of London, the screen comes alive with glorious detail. Boys catch a slippery ride by hanging onto the backs of coaches as they navigate icy streets or roll hoops with sticks. Finely dressed women window shop. Carolers stand on street corner while a carriage approaches in the distance and a light snow falls. A blind man gets pulled by his seeing eye dog, and another works a coconut shell game on the streets. Horses startle pedestrians and look so real that viewers also become startled. Then we get a fly-by aerial look at the city with all its richly textured stone and brick buildings, and in one especially fine establishing shot we see a sumptuous banquet being prepared while outside a butcher's shop starving children peer through the windows . . . then have to fight a dog for the scraps thrown outside. Shots of the Christmas marketplace, chimney sweeps, and backlit store windows all have an astoundingly rich look to them.
In some respects, motion capture CGI technology has come a long ways since Robert Zemeckis gave us "The Polar Express" (2004), with its waxy-faced (and a little creepy-looking) human faces. In Disney's "A Christmas Carol" (2009), also directed by Zemeckis, Scrooge looks amazingly sculpted and textured, as do other older men with facial hair. But the progress made with hair and leathery or blemished skin only makes it all the more painfully obvious that artists using mo-cap CGI still haven't figured out how to render youthful and delicate skin so that it doesn't look just a little . . . well, creepy. The carolers in "A Christmas Carol" look more unnatural than the jovial man soliciting a contribution from Scrooge, while Scrooge's nephew looks more doll-like than the old skinflint does, and Bob Cratchit (whose large wraparound sideburns help add texture to a face that's also a little too polished-apple looking) falls somewhere in-between.
And so visually--and this is a fascinating film to watch, in terms of it's art design, backgrounds, and fluid animation--"A Christmas Carol" can seem a bit uneven. Enough to detract from one's enjoyment of the film? Yes, but only slightly, compared to the experience of watching "The Polar Express."
I can see, though, why Zemeckis wanted to use motion-capture CGI again to retell the Charles Dickens' tale of a miser and the second chance on life he gets when he's visited by three ghosts--Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future--seven years to the day that his partner, Jacob Marley, passed away. You can do things with this medium that you simply can't accomplish with live-action and the limitations of stuntwork--even if it's CG-enhanced. Scrooge rides a rocket into space and then gets dropped through the clouds back down to earth again. Let's see a director make that look believable using live action. The ghosts can do more ghoulish things too, and as a result appear more frightening than they are in live-action versions--even the classic 1951 version starring Alastair Sim. And no amount of make-up or prosthesis can compete with the exaggerated downturn of mouth that developed on Scrooge over so many years of frowning, or knobby fingers grown arthritic from pencil pushing and money counting. Scrooge's appendages look like gnarled oak branches, and I can't imagine them looking any better in live action.
Then there's Jim Carrey. If I hadn't known he was the voice of Ebenezer Scrooge, I would never have guessed it. Just as the character designers and animators drew inspiration from Sim's portrayal, so did Carrey, who positively inhabits the body of this character so that every grunt, every acrid outburst feels authentically Dickensian. He carries this film the same as Sim carried that black-and-white 1951 version, with every every nuanced sentence as much of a delight as the backgrounds and objects in each frame.
Not all of the art direction and character design is equally mind-blowing. Although the ghost of Christmas Future looks traditional and Death Eater-like and the ghost of Christmas Present looks as Bacchanalian as the one from the illustrated 1843 version of the book, the first ghost--the Ghost of Christmas Past--reminded me of a gas company mascot, with its flaming little head and Casper-like face. Then again, maybe it takes a "flame-on" to rocket Scrooge into the past--yes, there are a few "high concept" moments in this version. And because the ghosts themselves get more play in Disney's "A Christmas Carol," while Tiny Tim and the Cratchit family are deemphasized, we're all but reminded that the 1843 book and early versions of the story used to bear the subtitle, "Being A Ghost Story of Christmas." In other words, they're baaa-aack!
In addition to a cast of relative unknowns, the celebrity voice talents do a fine job of hiding their recognizable voices, and with the exception of Colin Firth, who plays nephew Fred, all handle multiple roles: Cary Elwes (three minor characters), Robin Wright Penn (two minor characters), and Bob Hoskins (two minor characters). They help sell the grand illusion, but mostly it's the artwork, the animation and the action sequences that mesmerize.
So how scary is Scrooge and the ghosts that visit him? Scary enough to make viewers jump in places, but not so scary that my fright-prone daughter had to bury her head in a blanket. Disney's "A Christmas Carol" is rated PG, and I have no quarrel with that rating. I think the film makes for a fine addition to the medley of holiday films that families tend to watch from year to year.
The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB Blu-ray disc is a good one, except I could have sworn I saw some (dare I say it?) ghosting in just a few instances. But this film is visually strong and the presentation is likewise strong. Colors are beautiful, saturation is full except for somber tones of the peasantry scenes, and blank levels are appropriately dark. Skin tones? Well, Zemeckis still needs to get his crew to figure out how to make young skin look real. Disney's "A Christmas Carol" is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio. This title is available in 3D, too, but this Blu-ray has a pleasing sense of 3-dimensionality without the glasses or objects flying into your lap. There's one point where disgusting spitting occurs and you're wondering WTP? (Why the phlegm?), but clearly scenes like that were added for the 3D version. Thankfully there aren't many that seem so gratuitously inserted.
The featured audio is a bold English DTS-HD MA 5.1 (48 kHz/24-bit) that fills the room dynamically without crushing the dialogue or softer ambieint sounds in the background. There's a nice wide spread across the front speakers, and dialogue, music, and FX and appropriately mixed so there's no need to toggle up or down on the volume control. In extreme moments some of what's said gets a bit drowned out, but that's clearly deliberate. Additional audio options are an English 2.0 DVS, French and Spanish Dolby Digital Surround with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
The picture-in-picture interactive commentary track is a good one which runs the full length but concentrates solely on the motion-capture technology and filming. If you ever wanted a blow-by-blow account of how a story like this one gets the mo-cap treatment, this feature does a good job. But that's the only thing that's covered, and we never leave that motion-capture studio. To someone casually watching, it appears as if every shot looks similar: Carrey in a harness, Carrey being wheeled, Carrey at a desk, and so on. In other words, most viewers will opt out after a half hour of this, their curiosity sated. One nice feature is that you can click on a button to have the mo-cap picture-in-picture (which is tiny, in the bottom right corner, fill the whole screen while you listen to the optional commentary, and at any time you can also turn the commentary off.
The other main 1080p bonus feature is an interactive calendar that's basically a virtual Advent Calendar with a different treat to be "opened" each day before Christmas. While it's a nifty idea, I think it was also an opportunity lost. I've never been a big fan of BD-Live, but if any feature cried out for the BD-Live treatment, it's this one. In case you're not familiar with the concept of Advent calendars, children would open a "window" on a Christmas scene and behind it find some painted object. Modern Advent calendars have upped the ante, since discovering a picture of a French horn isn't the delight it once was, and have put different shaped chocolates behind the window. So to have Disney just put animated versions of those old drawings feels positively antiquated. I expected at least the equivalent of an Easter Egg per day, but no such luck. Plus, it's only a one-screen calendar with 25 "windows" to click on, and you can click on all 25 if you like, even though the instructions are to click on just one per day. Well, I can give you one good reason why no one would do that: it's not worth popping in the Blu-ray, waiting for load-time, and then navigating to the calendar just to click on an animated toy or something. But a BD-Live feature with actual CONTENT would have been enough of an enticement for people to try this underused Internet-based "bonus feature" function that not even filmmakers know what to do with.
After these two, the Blu-ray has duplicates of the DVD bonus feature content: Capturing Dickens: A Novel Retelling, On Set with Sammi, Deleted scenes, and three info-promos (on Blu-ray, Digital Copy). Sammi is Sammi Hanratty, who plays a Cratchit girl. We see her in mo-cap make-up, decked out in her uniform, and working on-set while she narrates the entire way--"entire" meaning just under two minutes. Three deleted scenes are preceded by an optional Zemeckis intro telling why each (Hearse, Belle's Family, Clothesline) didn't make the cut. The big bonus feature (14:42) is a fairly standard making-of feature narrated by Jacquie Barnbrook, the actress who plays Mrs. Fezziwig. Zemeckis says he took on the challenge because he thought the technology had finally reached the point where it could do justice to the novel and bring Dickens' imagination to life. It's interesting listening to everyone talk at how easy it was to stay faithful to the book because Dickens was such a cinematic writer, long before the invention of film. "We are recreating the thrill and the excitement and the spectacle as originally written by Dickens," one of the filmmakers says.
The 1951 Alastair Sim version still ranks as the Number 1 "Christmas Carol," but this mo-cap CGI animated version comes in a close second. Disney's "A Christmas Carol" may not be perfect, but over time it's going to endure far longer as a Christmas classic than "The Polar Express," and better-looking humans is only part of the reason. Zemeckis tells a darned good ghost story and nails down Victorian life with every richly detailed frame.