Celebrate the spirit of the season with this holiday classic!
Well, at least the story's a classic. This film? Not so much.
The proof of a great story is that people never tire of retelling it. Charles Dickens's holiday fable, A Christmas Carol, is one such great story, having been reinvented dozens of times for both the big screen and television, in versions showcasing personalities as varied as Albert Finney, Bill Murray, and Kermit the Frog.
Of course, the curse of a great story is that…well…people never tire of retelling it. Even at the point when perhaps they should. As this animated version directed by legendary animator Jimmy T. Murakami demonstrates.
Facts of the Case
In the event that you and your family have spent the last century and a half hibernating in a crater on the dark side of Venus, here's a capsule summary:
Ebenezer Scrooge (voiced by Simon Callow, Shakespeare in Love) is a miserly businessman living in Victorian London. An ill-tempered, compassionless moneygrubber, Scrooge runs roughshod over everyone he encounters. The brunt of Scrooge's villainy falls especially hard on the shoulders of his humble clerk, Bob Cratchit (voiced by Rhys Ifans, Notting Hill, The Replacements), whom Scrooge pays slave wages that barely support the clerk, his no-nonsense wife (Juliet Stevenson, Bend It Like Beckham), and the burgeoning Cratchit family, which includes a spunky crippled son affectionately known as Tiny Tim.
On Christmas Eve, Scrooge receives a frightening series of visitations from four spectral manifestations—first, the ghost of Scrooge's deceased business partner, Jacob Marley (voiced by Oscar laureate Nicolas Cage, who must have had a free afternoon and owed someone at MGM a gigantic favor), then a trio of phantoms representing Christmases Past, Present, and Future. Through these visions, we learn how Scrooge evolved into the black-hearted, unpleasant human being he now is, and witness the current and potential consequences of his parsimony. By dawn on Christmas morning, Ebenezer has seen the light of wisdom, repented of the error of his penny-pinching ways, and turned over a charitable new leaf.
There's no question that director Jimmy T. Murakami knows how to tell a poignant story on film using the art of animation. Best known as the director of the Oscar-nominated short film The Magic Pear Tree and supervising director of the holiday TV perennial The Snowman, Murakami fashioned one of the most unique and provocative animated features ever made, the nuclear holocaust fable When the Wind Blows. Murakami also contributed the signature opening sequence Soft Landing to the cult classic Heavy Metal, featuring the now-famous image of an astronaut disembarking from an orbiting space shuttle at the wheel of a Corvette convertible.
But wringing emotional involvement out of a remake of A Christmas Carol, a story so familiar almost every member of the audience knows the plot outline by rote, is a daunting task even a filmmaker of Murakami's considerable talent. The only conceivable way to pull off the miracle would be to completely reinvent the old chestnut, much as the Bill Murray vehicle Scrooged did. Unfortunately, Murakami chose to hew pretty closely in tone to the Dickens original, which means that, sad to tell, there just isn't much new here to get excited about.
The few novelty bells and whistles detract from, rather than enhance, the central narrative. Murakami adds that hoary animation staple, a pair of lovably cute mice, to juice up the kid appeal (thankfully, the mice do not talk), greatly expands the role of Scrooge's childhood sweetheart, voiced here by Kate Winslet, and offers a nod to the CD aftermarket by pitching in a couple of wannabe pop singles warbled by Winslet and teenage diva Charlotte Church. Aside from these minor tweaks, none of which works in context, this is pretty much your father's—and your grandfather's—Christmas Carol, and you've been down this road every Yuletide since you were old enough to dangle a stocking from the mantelpiece.
Worse yet, the unappealing visual style of the film presents stark testimony to the decline of hand-drawn animation. Dull, colorless, and as flat and limited in movement as the cruddiest Saturday morning TV fare, Christmas Carol: The Movie looks slapdash and clunky, with characters so static they're barely an improvement over those venerable Grantray superhero cartoons from the 1960s. Murakami drew his own storyboards for the film, and one wonders at times if the character art was simply traced directly from the storyboards. Additionally, the character designs are dreary and scarcely distinguishable from one another. Only in the often-beautiful background artwork do we find anything approaching the lush, painterly quality familiar to fans of Murakami's other animated creations.
The big-name voice talent is adequate, but they aren't given much leeway here to develop their characters. Usually, cartoon actors are instructed to push the emotional envelope to give the animators a vivid construct against which to create character action, but everyone behind the microphones here remains relentlessly low-key. Simon Callow's Scrooge, in particular, needed far more fire in him to be interesting.
Christmas Carol: The Movie is a disappointing effort from a director capable of moving, sparkling work. Perhaps for his next outing, Murakami should select a story that hasn't already been done to death.
MGM's DVD of Christmas Carol: The Movie (and what's up with that title, anyway? it's not like this is this first movie ever adapted from Dickens's tale, for pity's sake) delivers an adequate presentation of an inadequate film. The full frame transfer—in a peculiar twist, the opening and closing credits are shown in letterboxed widescreen—is surprisingly grainy and dirty from so recent a movie. A few instances of indistinct focus crop up from time to time, but pass quickly enough not to become distracting. The stereo soundtrack doesn't add much interest, though it offers sufficient roundness and depth. Dialogue is, for the most part, well placed and clearly articulated.
The primary extra is a 12-minute featurette, Making Christmas Carol: The Movie. This little trifle doesn't stray far from the standard parameters of the electronic press kit, blending footage from the movie with interview clips featuring director Murakami, several members of the production team, and actors Simon Callow, Kate Winslet, and Juliet Stevenson. The best bits come from the technical insights into the development of traditional animation, a stagecraft rapidly going the way of hoop skirts and doubleheaders. Toward the end, Winslet chats about her experience recording the film's Celine Dion-esque theme song, What If, a video (in which the radiant Winslet looks positively smashing, for those who care about such aesthetic issues) for which is also on the menu. Winslet frankly admits that when asked to perform the number, she told the producers, "I can sing a bit, but I'm not a singer…but I'll be perfectly happy to give it a go. If you think it's rubbish, you can throw it out and get someone else to do it." As the video reveals, she acquits herself admirably—thanks in sizable measure to the wonders of modern studio technology—with her pleasing and harmless rendition of this nondescript power ballad.
Also in the special features section, we find the film's original theatrical opening and ending sequences. These live-action bookends star Simon Callow, the film's Scrooge, in character as Charles Dickens, performing a public reading of A Christmas Carol. There's no commentary offered to explain why these scenes were excised from the main feature for the DVD presentation—especially since they're included here anyway. I can only speculate that someone at MGM thought they would disrupt the appeal of the movie for kids, who might be more interested in the cartoon. Whatever the cause for this decision, the sequences are nicely produced, but add little to the film's impact (or lack thereof) either by their insertion or omission. It does, however, account for the rather abrupt start of the edited version of the movie used here.
The film's theatrical trailer—which prominently features the deprecated live-action material—is joined by a battery of previews for other MGM holiday releases (It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, Prancer, A Freezerburnt Christmas, Second Star to the Left) and random kidvid product (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: Special Edition, Hi5!, Hamilton Mattress, Miss Spider's Sunny Patch Kids).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Viewers interested in Jimmy T. Murakami's work should track down a VHS copy (it's not yet available on DVD) of his 1986 feature, When the Wind Blows. A darkly comic satire about nuclear disaster based on the work of Raymond Briggs, the author/artist who also originated The Snowman, and featuring music by David Bowie and Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, When the Wind Blows in some ways prefigures the classic anime Grave Of The Fireflies, though it isn't as intellectually brilliant, artistically challenging, or depressing. It is, however, well worth searching out.
On the other hand, one could check out Murakami's sole venture into live-action features, the John Sayles-scripted, Roger Corman-produced sci-fi opus Battle Beyond The Stars. It's a smart, campy cult classic, and it's a hoot.
Deader than Jacob Marley. I don't know what the Dickens Jimmy Murakami was thinking when he cooked up this holiday turkey, but there isn't enough stuffing and gravy on a thousand Yuletide tables to make Christmas Carol: The Movie palatable. Not to sound overmuch like Scrooge, but you can relegate this one to the Ghost of Christmas Never. Bah, humbug.
Guilty of murder of the classics in the first degree. Sentenced to eating leftover goose fat and fruitcake for Christmas dinner, then scouring the wassail pot and rinsing out the stockings. Court's in recess for the holidays. God bless us, every one!
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: Making Christmas Carol: The Movie
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