DISNEY'S A CHRISTMAS CAROL
**½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B
screenplay by Robert Zemeckis, based on the novel by Charles Dickens
directed by Robert Zemeckis
THE FOURTH KIND
starring Milla Jovovich, Will Patton, Corey Johnson, Elias Koteas
written and directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi
by Ian Pugh If Robert Zemeckis hasn't quite left the Uncanny Valley behind, at the very least, the heart missing from his latest effort--what seems like the trillionth retelling of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, and the billionth animated one--correlates directly to its absence of personality, rather than to an absence of humanity. A backhanded compliment, to be sure, but the character designs finally resemble something closer to artistic interpretation than to a failed attempt at replicating human beings exactly as they are, with Marley (Gary Oldman) and Scrooge (Jim Carrey), for example, rendered almost expressionistically to evoke rotten apples and hunched skeletons. From that standpoint, the actors' sudden bursts of acrobatic grace, no longer so incongruous, capture some of computer-animated cinema's wonder, the kind at which Zemeckis has grasped since The Polar Express--a true example of bringing the impossible to life. The only problem is that Zemeckis's own script isn't worth more than a shrug, and the film relies too much on its visuals to carry the extra weight.
Although A Christmas Carol is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the original text, Zemeckis hasn't a legitimate perspective on the material that lies between the book's famous passages. Without one, the picture becomes a Cliffs Notes speed-read through the basic themes of an already-short story. Loneliness, love, cruelty, happiness--all compacted into a particularly lifeless episode of "This is Your Life". A few of the director's stylistic conceits do succeed in picking up the slack, however. With Jim Carrey charged to play Scrooge and all three of his ghostly tormentors, the film implies that the old man's redemption springs entirely from within--the most promising idea to this end being the reaper-like Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, which literally grows out of Scrooge's own shadow. (Scrooge's encounters with Ignorance and Want, meanwhile, are pitiless mirrors of his own words and actions precisely as terrifying as they should be.) What a better movie this could have been had it followed through on that sort of allegory--even if that meant less attention paid to the tassels on Christmas Present's robe or the impressions characters leave in their chairs. Is it too obvious, or perhaps too Scrooge-like, to say that I've grown tired of this kind of hyperrealism? No, it bears repeating.
Because simply the hint of subtext is enough to leave the mind desperately wanting throughout this SFX extravaganza, A Christmas Carol is a better lesson for filmmakers than it is for audiences. Zemeckis already devoted the entirety of Beowulf to throwing his wax dolls around the room willy-nilly, and this time he routinely interrupts Dickens to toss Carrey across London for no reason save to remind you of the 3-D. (By the way, 3-D is still a terrible, terrible idea. That also bears repeating.) It all becomes too busy to concern itself with why we're still talking about A Christmas Carol 150 years later, and it eventually forgets what it was talking about in the first place. Isn't the threat of being scorned and forgotten upon death sufficiently frightening? Why do we need a demonic coachman to chase the old miser in a blinding action sequence? Nothing else to say, really, except "better luck next time."
Olatunde Osunsanmi's The Fourth Kind provokes a similar reaction, although it's intended with less goodwill and more sarcastic derision. Trading Paranormal Activity's demonic apparitions for extraterrestrial abductors, the film baits the same audience as Milla Jovovich steps in front of a camera--both evidently mounted on a merry-go-round--to state that The Fourth Kind is based on true events. The picture spends the rest of its runtime trying to back up that claim. Dramatic re-enactments (complete with impromptu subtitles to introduce the actors!) are often placed alongside "real" home-video footage of the woman Jovovich is ostensibly portraying: a psychologist in Nome whose patients are seeing identical visions of a white owl that "isn't an owl." Whatever this film has to say on the subject of alien encounters, the constantly-shifting split-screens--combined with a camera that will absolutely not stand still--make it an unforgivable chore to watch. Indeed, the moviegoers at my screening howled when yet another one of Osunsanmi's ponderous 360-degree camera swoops initiated a staring contest with its dreaded owl.
While the inherent silliness of Paranormal Activity might elicit a few gentle chuckles, that's because it doesn't suffer from the same delusions of gravity this humourless exercise does. Every ineloquent line is dropped with such solemn import that of course the script reminds you of some paranoid crackpot on the Internet. (It was probably written in eighteen-point font on a GeoCities page.) The performances are by and large serviceable, though Will Patton, playing Nome's skeptical sheriff, may have sent six or seven careers into turnaround with the sheer force of his own hysterical melodrama. With its attempt at Revelations-esque doom and its children being spirited away to outer space, The Fourth Kind is actually closer to the ridiculous Knowing as told by "Unsolved Mysteries"--so how else could you respond to it but with incredulous laughter? In all seriousness, God bless poor Elias Koteas for trying so hard; he's stuck in a variation on the same thankless role he had in The Haunting in Connecticut, and once again summons more gusto than anyone else within a fifteen-mile radius of this abomination. It's not enough to redeem the final product, but, it bears repeating, God bless him. Originally published: November 6, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Buena Vista brings Disney's A Christmas Carol to both the standard Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D formats. (It marks their first non-anaglyph 3D release.) Since no one at FILM FREAK CENTRAL is 3D-capable, we opted for the 2-D version, a Blu-ray + DVD combo that leaves just a tiny bit to be desired. The 2.40:1, 1080p transfer would be status quo if not for the banding artifacts, which can present a problem in a film often lit by candlelight. Black is a bit on the sooty side, but I took that for artistic intent; I do wonder whether the bitrate is overtaxed, though, by the movie being forced to share digital real estate with a live-action version of the feature (which we'll get to in a moment). If the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is predictably robust, the inconsistent cleverness of the mix itself is a slight disappointment--the last half of the picture is basically a sonic blur accompanied by a relentlessly flatulent subwoofer as Scrooge is treated like a human cannonball.
"Behind the Carol: The Full Motion-Capture Experience" offers a picture-in-picture view of the action as it played out on a bare soundstage, with the actors in MoCap suits and helmets, their faces pocked with black dots. (You can blow up the window to 16x9 fullscreen, revealing a standard-def image encoded in 1080p.) The angles are B-roll angles not strictly faithful to where the camera wound up in the final product, but the takes and editing rhythms are in perfect synch. While 90+ minutes of this stuff is simultaneously hypnotic and gratuitous, the length helps support the final statements of director Robert Zemeckis's optional audio commentary, in which he laments that journalists and awards-voting bodies demote the performances in these types of animated films (Avatar would be another, ultimately) to voicework. One thing's clear from this yakker: he is really proud of what he has accomplished here, variously referring to it as "a watershed," "a perfect blend of digital cinema and theatre," and "one of the quintessential movies of the 21st century." Like Robert Rodriguez, Zemeckis can be annoyingly contradictory for the sake of championing his technical innovations; mentioning he stole one shot from Hitchcock, he adds that live-action would preclude the same shot. He seems to be spoiling for a fight with Pixar, or at least Pixar fans, when he says that nuance is all but impossible to achieve in virtual acting without the aid of performance capture (hell, I beg to differ on the basis of Looney Tunes alone)--I guess he doesn't see the lack of sets/props/costumes, the total and utter reliance on pantomime, as imposing its own limitations and inhibitions on the synthespian's range of expression.
Also on board is a making-of featurette, "Capturing Dickens: A Novel Retelling" (15 mins., HD), hosted by the very-game actress Jacquie Barnbrook. We're resold the same line of guff about this being the first truly faithful adaptation of A Christmas Carol, to which I say show me the part where it reads "then Fizziwig somersaulted off his perch." Though treated as a lark, the explanation of the "T-pose" is genuinely edifying, however--for all the Harrison Bergeron-style handicaps placed on cast members, having to T-pose is the one thing that appears to well and truly rattle them. "On the Set with Sammi" (2 mins., HD) finds saucer-eyed tween Sammi Hanratty, who played almost every pubescent female character in A Christmas Carol, hastening us through a typical day of shooting from clock-in to clock-out, while the "Countdown to Christmas Interactive Calendar" offers a lo-cal (as in, food-free), Java-enabled alternative to the traditional advent calendar. (Your BD player will actually keep track of the opened days.) Last but not least, six deleted scenes (9 mins. in toto) come with a quick video intro from Zemeckis, who warns of their raw, unfinished state. Indeed, footage of the performers is superimposed over faces to aid in understanding the emotional tenor of the moment. I rolled my eyes during the thankfully-elided "miniaturized Scrooge uses a brassiere as a parachute" number--another thing I doubt came straight from the book.
Rounding out the platter: "Discover Blu-ray 3D with Timon & Pumbaa" (4 mins., HD), a deplorable promo for the new gewgaw made more so by the fact that it's in 2-D; startup previews for Disney-branded Blu-ray 3D, Bambi, Tron Legacy, and The Sorcerer's Apprentice; and a block of sneak peeks hyping Digital Copy technology, Disney's Oceans, ABC Family, The Search for Santa Paws, Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2, the upcoming Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 BD, and The Incredibles. The retail DVD finishes out the package. Originally published: November 9, 2010.