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CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE MOVIE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices:  Simon Callow, Kate Winslet, Nicholas Cage, Jane Horrocks, Rhys Ifans, Michael Gambon, Juliet Stevenson
Director:  Jimmy T Murakami
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  77 Minutes
Release Date:  October 14, 2003

“What happened to those dreams, Ebenezer?”

Film **

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is really about as perfect as a story can get.  It’s been told many times in many ways, in print, on stage, in song, and on film, but it’s the kind of tale that never gets old.  It’s a beautifully affirming story of redemption, second chances, and the spirit of the holidays the way we wish we could keep in our hearts all year.

Christmas Carol: The Movie is an honorable attempt to animate the classic short story, but it’s a case of the technique not being able to live up to the material.  The magic that Charles Dickens put in to his work can never be vanquished, but at the same time, it’s hard to ignore the fact that you’re watching a decidedly substandard cartoon effort.

There were minor tweaks to the story as well.  Some I didn’t mind, such as the further development of the love story between Ebenezer Scrooge (Callow) and Belle (Winslet), which was only a minor regret in the Dickens story.  Others I strenuously objected to, like the inclusion of two infernally annoying mice that were supposed to be cuddly and comical, but instead filled my head with wicked visions of snapping mousetraps.

It’s sad to see how much enthusiasm has waned for traditional animation these days.  Even Disney has had a run of bad luck with the art form they pioneered.  For Christmas Carol, there’s nowhere near that level of quality.  Characters, objects and backgrounds are curiously flat.  They don’t seem realistic nor expressive.  The emotions of the story are pure, but these drawings don’t really capture or convey them in the way they deserve.

We all know the tale well enough, I’m sure…mean miserly Scrooge makes life miserable for everyone around him, including his employee and family, until a magical Christmas Eve brings him face to face with his past, present and future.  It’s the granddaddy of all second chances, and when Scrooge promises to mend his ways…well, you know.  He was better than his word.

A new angle occurs when his one time fiancée Belle has to send a letter pleading for Scrooge’s kindness when the hospital she works for, the only haven for the needy, is about to fold because of debts Scrooge has purchased.  In Dickens’ original version, there was no second chance romance for Scrooge.  But in this story, Scrooge seems much younger than we remembered.  His opportunity to do good could rekindle the love he once let slip away.

At least, I think so…the way the movie leaves that part somewhat unresolved is frustrating.  Why introduce such a story thread and not see it through to its logical conclusion?  Humbug.

Even stranger was the decision to remove the live action opening and closing bookends, depicting Simon Callow as Charles Dickens, re-telling his classic tale in the New World of America for an audience hearing the “full” story for the first time.  They are included as supplements instead.  As a result, the movie seems to begin and end awkwardly.

But there’s a purity to the story that can’t be lost, even with faults such as these.  The redemptive quality is still powerful enough to move.  And there are other good points, such as two terrific new songs, one sung by Charlotte Church and one by Kate Winslet herself.  Ms. Winslet does a decent job of voicing Belle also, as does Mr. Callow as Scrooge.  The strangest inclusion is that of Nicholas Cage as the ghost of Jacob Marley.  Cage is a terrific actor, but man, does he seem lost doing the strained, haunting voice of a spirit!

This might be a pleasant enough family affair.  The kids might take to it, and the parents will be okay with it, but more experienced audiences are likely to pine for the missed opportunities more than they enjoy what’s actually offered.

Video **

Though animation normally looks great on DVD, this one is a sad exception.  The muted colors and aforementioned flat images are problematic enough, but the digital transfer also seems a bit shimmery and grainy from time to time, with a few instances of noticeable bleeding.  Even more troubling is the decision to forgo widescreen presentation, which makes more than a few scenes seem a little tightly cropped to the left and right.  Even though the film is only a couple of years old, these problems all make it seem like it was made a couple of decades ago.

Audio **

The stereo surround track is adequate, but some bits of dialogue seem a little hushed compared to the background sounds.  Dynamic range is fair.  The music, especially the songs I mentioned, really sound terrific and are the track’s highlights.

Features **

In addition to presenting the opening and ending of the movie as features, there is a production featurette with a few cast and crew interviews, a trailer, and previews for other titles.  But the true highlight for me was the music video of Kate Winslet performing “What If”.  It’s a sad and beautiful song, and Ms. Winslet looks and sounds beautiful while singing it.  It alone is worth at least a rental of this title.

Summary:

Christmas Carol: The Movie captures a bit of the heart of Charles Dickens’ original short story, but misses it in other places.  It may be too weak to ever be a classic, but for young ones being introduced to the tale for the first time, it might be serviceable enough.