After hundreds of adaptations and contemporary revisions on radio, the stage and screens large and small, most everyone who’s lived through more than four or five Christmases knows Ebenezer Scrooge’s tale. A miserly husk of humanity, Scrooge is a sour spirit whose withering glance gives chills to the warmest of souls. And even after his business partner, Marley, shuffles off this mortal coil, the long-in-the-tooth but short-in-the-heart Scrooge keeps up his penny pinching precepts.
Why, he even lifts the twopence from his former partner’s forever-closed eyes!
In Polar Express engineer Robert Zemeckis’ animated take, the now ghostly and gruesome Marley reappears on a dark winter’s eve to offer Scrooge another two cents. The spirit laments his lost and squandered life, and he warns his old friend—in none too friendly terms—that unless he changes his ways, he too will be cursed to endlessly wander the spiritual plain carrying an imponderably long and heavy chain of woes.
Scrooge is dubious, of course. So Marley offers his hunched and wiry partner one more chance at redemption: He promises enlightening visits from three spirits—the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.
Books could be written (and have been) about the depth and breadth of Charles Dickens’ most famous of yarns. I will condense its beneficial offerings to a few meager paragraphs:
Using Scrooge’s dour and often dark journey to full effect, A Christmas Carol regularly reminds us of the joys and redeeming grace that mankind celebrates at Christmas—and we start getting that message long before Mr. Miserable Moneybags makes his big turnaround. Passersby sing Christmas carols recounting and celebrating Jesus’ birth (“Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” etc.). Several characters—including Scrooge’s nephew Fred and his former boss Fezziwig—speak of heaven’s grace and God’s blessings even in times of sorrow and trial.
And while most people hate or fear Scrooge, his underpaid and underappreciated employee, Bob Cratchit, chooses to dedicate his family’s Christmas meal to his boss and lift praise for the (meager though they may be) morsels he has made possible. Fred longs to see his uncle break free from his self-imposed isolation and come join the rest of his family for Christmas dinner. And though Fred finds himself rebuffed as usual, his heart is big enough that when Scrooge’s heart softens, Fred and his family rejoice.
As Scrooge takes his journey with the Christmas spirits he is reminded of the many kind, gentle and loving people who passed through his life and who he tossed aside. He begins to appreciate the gift that life is. And he—as you already full well know—ultimately sees the egregious error and foolhardiness of his cantankerous and greedy ways.
Then, with feeling, but for the very first time, he reaches out to the Cratchit family. He becomes a “second father” to Tiny Tim. He embraces his nephew and his family. And he opens his purse to give to charity and the poor.
As much as Scrooge’s story may be of a man finding a new redemptive beginning, it is also very much a ghost story. And from ghostly visitors to red-eyed shadow horses to the hooded Specter of Death, this version of it plays those latter elements up about as much as I’ve ever seen them played. Audiences are regularly immersed in its spiritual happenings—some of them dark.
More benevolent are images of rejoicing carolers and praying families. Bob Cratchit reports that his sick and hobbled son wanted people at a Christmas Eve service to notice that he was a cripple so that they might remember “who makes the blind man see and the cripple walk.” People cry out such phrases as, “The Lord is king,” “God bless,” “The Lord bless you” and “God save you!”
Elsewhere, Scrooge’s only love laments that he has replaced his affection for her with an obsession for the “idol” of wealth. A street vendor performs the shell and pea game, calling the three shells the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. A spirit expresses disdain for the clergy.
A number of festive females wear dresses that reveal cleavage. The two starving children (named Ignorance and Want) cowering beneath the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present grow to adulthood in mere moments—and the girl briefly assumes the wanton look and provocative gestures of a prostitute.
Scrooge takes many a thumping tumble during his journeys with the Christmas spirits. Face-first falls and tumbling chases through cobblestone streets abound. He smashes through huge icicles as he slides down a hill.
In spite of his initial arthritic hunch, though, the old fella turns out to be pretty spry and never appears to be worse for wear or in danger of being hurt.
That’s not to say there aren’t violently frightening moments. For instance, when Marley comes to visit Scrooge, lugging crashing ghostly weights and lashing chains, he becomes so agitated that the entire of his lower jaw snaps off. Scrooge looks out on a courtyard at one point and sees dozens of spirits tortured and tormented by the thumping, crushing weight of their sins.
When the clock strikes 12, the Ghost of Christmas Present crumbles before our eyes in chortling death throes. He eventually is reduced to bone and ash. And during an elongated chase, Scrooge tries to escape the (quite creepy) Specter of Death and his hurtling, wall-shattering hearse. Scrooge later falls into an open grave that appears to be excavated down to the bowels of hell itself.
“Blast” and “balderdash” are the harshest of Scrooge’s exclamations. But game players at a party slyly invoke the double meaning of “ass” while playing a “guess the animal” game. “Oh my god” is blurted out in surprise.
Partygoers drink tankards of wassail or mead and glasses of wine. A few men are seen with pipes
As much as almost any other classic, this towering tale never seems to grow old. It’s a redemptive story that never fails to leave a tear in my eye or renew my commitment to treat friends, neighbors and even irritating relatives a little nicer.
I’ve personally seen dozens of performances of A Christmas Carol. I’ve even played the cranky old tightwad Scrooge myself a few times in my acting days. And I can readily say I’ve never seen a better overall performance of it than this animated adaptation by Messrs. Zemeckis and Carrey.
The vocal talent is terrific. Jim Carrey’s half-dozen characters are unique, controlled and inviting. He sets aside his typical rubber-faced, goofy pratfalls and ponies up a very thoughtful, enjoyable and at times moving performance. And he’s not alone; the whole cast shines.
The screenplay sticks closely to Charles Dickens’ original. And the brilliant special effects—from motion-capture technology to sweeping camera angles to 3-D twists and turns—dazzle in every scene. Audiences, in fact, will be ducking everything from Christmas wreaths to errant snowflakes.
But that’s not all they’ll be ducking from. Because this is, without question, the most intensely frightening Christmas Carol I’ve ever seen, as well. It’s a pretty dark ghost story and the excellent CGI enhances the shivers with ghastly gusto. Starting with a decomposing Marley and his shattered jaw and lolling tongue, many a young viewer will quickly find themselves scared out of their Christmas candy cane socks.
(I took my teenage daughter with me to the press screening, and after the film her first words were, “That was really scary!”)
That family-oriented warning duly noted, though, I’m compelled to return to the power of Scrooge’s salvation. Because that grim ghostly fare I’ve mentioned—especially since it’s confined to PG-rated boundaries—makes the salient case for jerking ourselves sharply away from our own greedy, selfish, heartless instincts. (While most of us aren’t so shameful as to deprive a good man his holiday pay, we are at least occasionally tempted to stockpile our worldly goods at others’ expense.) When Scrooge is spared from the pains of hell and turns away from the fire that has begun to consume him, the common need for redemption is made plain. And when the ghost of Christmas Present pulls back his robe to reveal those starving, rapidly morphing children, we get the poignant point—right between the eyes—that ignorance and want can lead to crime and sin and destruction.
In this 21st century A.D., computers can create grand cinema, but they can’t negate need. So Dickens’ Victorian warnings ring ever true.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.