Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 3, 2003)
Just what we need – the nine-millionth adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol! IMDB lists 40 programs with that title, but that doesn’t remotely begin to account for all the takes on the story. For one, it omits editions with altered names like Scrooge or Scrooged. In addition, many TV shows did their own versions, and we also have skillions of versions on the stage and elsewhere. Is there anything new to do with the tale?
Probably not, though the animated Christmas Carol – The Movie gives it a shot. It adds new elements and emphasizes some background bits from the traditional tale. Unfortunately, it does all this in a poor way and loses sight of what makes the story so compelling after all these years.
Given the fame of A Christmas Carol, a synopsis seems somewhat pointless, but I’ll provide one anyway. Ebenezer Scrooge (voiced by Simon Callow) runs his own business and is clearly a skinflint and a jerk. Isolated from others by his own accord, on Christmas Eve the misanthrope receives a visit from the ghost of Jacob Marley (Nicolas Cage), his old partner. Condemned to remain in limbo, Marley warns Scrooge that he’ll suffer the same fate if he doesn’t clean up his act.
Scrooge initially discounts this incident, but then he receives additional visits from other ghosts. One takes him to Scrooge accompanies Christmas Past (Jane Horrocks), where he watches his childhood emotional pain as well as some romance and his ultimate shift from human affection to monetary gain.
From there he goes with Christmas Present (Michael Gambon), where he sees the poor but loving family of his employee Bob Cratchit (Rhys Ifans). Scrooge learns that Cratchit’s son Tiny Tim will die without significant medical attention. Lastly, the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his own fate as well as that of Tiny Tim. When the ghosts finish with Scrooge, he changes his ways and becomes a barrel of laughs.
What an odd piece of work! Much of Carol screams “cheap straight-to-video” tripe. The film sure looks like something created for about ten bucks and intended for indiscriminate holiday buyers. However, it appears that Carol actually received theatrical screenings in some territories; IMDB lists a UK run among other locales. It apparently never made it to the US, however.
In addition, Carol boasts a cast of voice actors with some real name recognition. Kate Winslet plays a major role, and Nic Cage shows up briefly. Even Simon Callow possesses some familiarity, particularly for fans of Amadeus.
None of that helps make Carol anything more than a genuinely terrible film. Strangely, the filmmakers decide to tamper with the classic via some new and unnecessary elements. Winslet plays Belle, a nurse who once dated Scrooge. She works for Dr. Lambert (Arthur Cox); he helps kids, but when he doesn’t pay his bills on time, he goes to debtor’s prison. Belle writes Scrooge to appeal to his prior humanity but he takes quite a while to actually read the letter.
In an attempt at whimsy, this Carol also prominently features a mouse named Gabriel. The film only partially anthropomorphizes the rodent. He doesn’t speak but he shows an intelligence and connection with the humans that elevates normal mouse behavior. He’s a pointless character who exists solely to give the movie a cute and cuddly little critter.
Actually, Gabriel actively undermines the plot through his interactions with Scrooge. Early in the film, we see that the miser enjoys an affection for the rodent. This makes Scrooge’s later transformation less impressive and surprising, as we can already see a cheerful side of the man.
One could argue that this becomes irrelevant due to our familiarity with the story. One could argue that most who watch Carol will already know how it ends. However, one would probably be incorrect in this case. An animated feature such as this will appeal mainly to children, and many of them will likely be unfamiliar with the tale at that stage in their lives. As such, they’ll lose much of the impact of Scrooge’s redemption since they see this warm side of him in advance.
Belle also offers a weak addition to the film. As with Gabriel, she seems more like a work of marketing synergy than a real personality. Most versions of Carol totally lack any hint of romantic possibilities for the present day Scrooge. I never saw that as a flaw, but apparently those behind this Carol decided that area needed fixing. Some prior iterations featured a love in Scrooge’s past, but this one decides to make her a current force in the story. It doesn’t work and it just feels tacky.
In addition, all these alterations badly harm the pacing of the movie. Even at a mere 77 minutes, it seems too long, mainly because the set-up takes forever. This means an interminable wait to get to the meat of the tale: Scrooge’s visitations by the ghosts. The added elements contribute nothing positive and only make the film move more clumsily.
I might more readily forgive the clumsy and cheesy integration of the mouse and the former flame if the execution of other elements seemed stronger, but unfortunately, Carol comes across as a very poor piece of work. It presents some of the crummiest animation I’ve seen in a while. The backgrounds look decent, but the characters come across like cardboard cutouts, and their movements are broad and artificial. The animators try desperately to add life to the participants via wild physical acting. The characters wave their arms relentlessly and gesticulate like mad. This just makes them seem all the more unnatural and fake.
If forced to say something positive about Christmas Carol – the Movie, I suppose the voice acting seems decent. Nonetheless, all involved should regard this atrocity as a blotch on their résumés. A cheap and pointless retelling of a classic, it never becomes anything more than a tacky and cheesy piece of product. It’s possible that crappier versions of A Christmas Carol exist, but happily, I’ve not yet seen one.