“A Christmas Carol” – Entertaining as the Dickens

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Hurtling above the chocolate box rooftops of Victorian England courtesy of “A Christmas Carol’s” director, Robert Zemeckis, author Charles Dickens and a host of 3D techno-elves, it occurs to us: While we’ve witnessed Mr. Scrooge’s trial at the hands of three ghosts in various forms, it’s the first time we’ve actually flown along with him.

No wonder the old gent is so stunned. It’s a breathtaking ride, and proof in the pudding not only of Dickens’s place in our culture, but the immutability of his literary essence. Wrapped in this shiny, new, animated package, the movie ranks a proud third in stature, behind the preeminent, 1951 Alastair Sim version, and the Hollywood chestnut of 1938.

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While there is no substitute for a bedside reading of the famed Christmas tale to acquaint little Taylor with the wonders of Charles Dickens, odds are this is how her mind’s eye will visualize it anyway. Tis a respectful melding of mediums as Mr. Zemeckis dips his artist’s brush in today’s hi-tech rainbow and applies it to the timeless classic.

But you must see it in 3D. Or better yet, in the hyperdrive magic of IMAX.  Otherwise, it’s just a very good cartoon adaptation of the novella Mr. Dickens put to paper in 1843. Although reasonably faithful in script, with only a few significant scenes left out to keep from scaring the bejesus out of Jarrett, it’s the new age alchemy that distinguishes it.

Hardly a venue of the performing arts hasn’t appropriated the allegory of redemption. I fondly attribute my grasp of miserliness to early lessons learned from Dell Comic’s Scrooge McDuck. There have been serious plays, operas, ballets and comic satires like Bill Murray’s “Scrooged” (1988). But none has added to the yarn, as well they shouldn’t.

Rather, they are cultural tributes, a need by society’s creative folk to reinvent cherished artistic icons in whatever the new parlance…thus, essentially, in their era’s own image. Certainly it’s inherently presumptuous, but vital nonetheless, both to spread the message in the current vernacular and to illustrate how the work’s teachings are still applicable.

The modernizing input here is the mode of delivery. You can feel Jack Frost nipping at your nose and sense the thrill of flight as spirits transport us through Ebenezer Scrooge’s misanthropic life. Note: As the chains that Jacob Marley forged in life clanged all around us, a sensitive six-year-old behind me sighed, “Oh, G-d, I don’t know if I can watch this.”

Parents who know the saga with the fervent recall of a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) adherent will be gratified that the baton of cherished phrases is accurately passed. When Scrooge hails a lad on Christmas morning to ask if the big prize turkey still hangs at the poulterer’s, you joyfully muse along: “An intelligent boy…a remarkable boy.”

And you hope that the message, which also survives the new rendition in good stead, is grokked. Of course you’ve regularly instilled these morals at home. But a little reaffirmation dispensed in an environment associated more with pleasure than authority is a good thing. “A Christmas Carol” performs this kiddy flick duty with notable aplomb.

Meanwhile, many accompanying Grandmas and Grandpas might, too, benefit from a refresher course. Especially if they’re the ones who, while talking on cell phones the other day, recklessly passed me on the shoulder, kicked up road dust and flashed digital salutations. After all, it’s not just about Christmas, but being a good soul the entire year.

Scrooge comes to know that. Not only because the three spirits put the fear of death and eternal damnation in him. But also, to quote Champ, my favorite bartender of many Christmases past, because “It’s nice to be nice.”  Hope I’m not giving anything away, but check out how happy Ebenezer is after he decides to join the human race and lend a hand.

Corny? Indeed. But one hundred and sixty-six years later and all too few people have gotten the memo. The prisons and the modern equivalent of the Union workhouses are still very much in operation. And the love of money, that repudiation of mankind that Ebenezer Scrooge so cynically embodies, is as virulent as ever.

I wish I could say that Mr. Dickens’s parable no longer held water. What poverty? What lack of medical care? But the sad fact is that it does. Heal Tiny Tim? Nope, sorry, pre-existing condition. Of course we can always hope that wise men finally prevail and this holiday season brings glad tidings. Count on “A Christmas Carol” to do its little part.

“A Christmas Carol,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release directed by Robert Zemeckis and stars the voices of Jim Carrey, Robin Wright Penn and Gary Oldman. Running time: 96 minutes


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