Saturday, November 7, 2009

Carrey, Zemeckis: Stay away from Christmas

I really want to get behind Disney's A Christmas Carol. Believe me I do.

I have been a Jim Carrey supporter long past the point where it was fashionable -- if it was ever fashionable -- and I have liked Robert Zemeckis' career directorial output as much as anyone. Plus, my wife and I have a special place in our hearts for Charles Dickens' classic tale. It was at a local staging of A Christmas Carol, five years ago next month, that we first met.

But history tells me to be cautious. Christmas and Jim Carrey and Christmas and Robert Zemeckis have been a toxic combination.

Let's take Carrey first. Still have the bad taste in your mouth after Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, directed by Ron Howard? I do, and that was nine years ago. It was loud, garish, malevolent and in all other ways crass. The Whos looked perverse, and Carrey as the Grinch was no better. That movie buckled under the weight of expanding outward to feature length from a short Dr. Seuss classic. It left few of us happy, and Carrey's over-the-top antics were one of the things ringing in our ears when we left the theater.

And speaking of the age-old difficulty of making movies out of extremely short stories, Zemeckis sapped all the joy out of Chris Van Allsburg's wonderful storybook The Polar Express five years ago. (That very same Christmas I met my wife, in fact -- I knew it all had to be interconnected somehow). Zemeckis did a pretty good job with the book's signature soft-focus look, the one I found so magical when reading this with the family when I was younger, but the filler plot was a total mess. Instead of the straightforward trip up to the North Pole from Van Allsburg's book, Zemeckis got obsessed with the train being constantly out of control, with the children aboard suspended in a constant state of mortal danger. Plus a dozen other set pieces designed only to plump up the running time. Not exactly how you want to feel during your family-oriented holiday fare. Then of course there was the most infamous element of this film, the fact that the not-quite-perfected motion-capture animation style (which has been a hallmark of every Zemeckis film since) left all the characters with dead eyes and jerky motions, most notably Tom Hanks appearing in about seven different roles.

My fear is that A Christmas Carol will represent the worst of both of these films.

The Polar Express vibe is the one that comes off more strongly from the trailer. What most people have seen of A Christmas Carol is the extended sequence in which Carrey's Ebenezer Scrooge is blasted into the air on the rocket-cone depicted in this poster. (The single-image declaration that this is not your father's Christmas Carol, I suppose.) The cone proceeds to disintegrate as Scrooge is about level with the moon, and he continues swimming/falling forward through the air, yelling out a supposed-to-be-hilarious "Humbug!" at the height of his arc. At some point in this whole affair he shrinks (?) to the size of a mouse and does a waterslide down some kind of pipe, which disgorges him on the slanted roof of a building. His momentum continues him onward through a line of icicles, which smash into his tiny face and torso as he slides downward, and he eventually lands in a sack being carried by a man on the street below. The last word we hear him emit is, again, "Humbug," but this time in the voice of Alvin or one of his chipmunks.


Warning flags going up left and right. What the hell does this have to do with A Christmas Carol?

Obviously, Zemeckis is not in it for a straightforward retelling of A Christmas Carol. That I can appreciate. There have been no less than 27 stagings of the tale in cinematic history, all of them relatively straightforward. But the specific way in which Zemeckis plans to reimagine the story really reeks of all those out-of-control trains in A Polar Express. Not to mention the fact that Carrey plays at least four characters here, echoing Hanks' role in A Polar Express. If Zemeckis hasn't learned any lessons from where he went wrong there, it's going to be a long night on IMAX 3-D for a lot of people this weekend.

But if A Christmas Carol tanks, Carrey will have certainly played some role in it as well. I'm not sure I love the idea that he plays all three ghosts in addition to the main character -- and Bob Cratchett? And Bob Cratchett's wife? And Tiny Tim? And Jacob Marley? And Jacob Marley's chains? I'm not sure whose idea it was, but playing many roles probably made Carrey a lot more interested than if he were just playing Scrooge. To be sure, Scrooge would have given him ample opportunity to exercise his love of scenery chewing. With at least three other prominent roles in the film, will we feel as bludgeoned by his Jim Carrey-ness at the end of it all, as we did at the end of How the Grinch Stole Christmas?

However, now that it's officially Christmas season -- finish up that Halloween candy, because gingerbread is right around the corner -- I'd be a bit of a Grinch/Scrooge myself if I didn't try to end this post with a bit of hope. So here goes.

I have really loved Zemeckis' last two films that used his now-signature technique. Monster House (2006), which was produced by Zemeckis and directed by Gil Kenan, started me backpedaling on my doubts about the effectiveness of this motion-capture technology. It was a fun, unique summer movie for kids and adults alike. Then the following year, the Zemeckis-directed version of Beowulf drove my wow factor over the top. Watching that film in IMAX 3-D was nearly a religious experience -- rarely have I felt so surrounded and absorbed by the world a film was trying to create for me. This is not to say it's a perfect film, just that it is executed in a way that makes you feel, momentarily, like it is.

And Carrey? Well, I'd be lying if I said that Carrey was at his peak right now. Last year's Yes Man was quite the disappointment; the previous year's The Number 23, all the more so; 2005's Fun With Dick and Jane, somewhere in between those two. But the more germane subject here is what Carrey has done with outsized characters that we've enjoyed. He was wonderful in the vastly underrated Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, in a similarly Scrooge-like role. Most would agree that he gave a bravura performance as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. And don't forget that original role way back when that put him on our map -- Ace Ventura, one of the most over-the-top characters in film history. I remember I watched the original Pet Detective at least two and possibly three times on the same rental.

My wife and I won't see A Christmas Carol this weekend -- we've got a number of movies, most notably Paranormal State, still standing in front of it. Besides, I'm not in the Christmas spirit yet. I always think it's a mistake to release Christmas movies this many weeks before Thanksgiving.

But we will see it eventually, and I'd love for it to be good, just as a symbolic celebration of our five years together.

Prove me wrong, Carrey and Zemeckis. Prove me wrong.

No comments: