November 16, 2010

Blu-ray Review: A Christmas Carol (2009)

I remember when this was announced for its theatrical release last year could not believe that I would be interested in it. I mean, this is A Christmas Carol, a story that everyone is familiar with. It is kind of like Frankenstein and Dracula as stories that we seem born knowing about. I feel fairly certain that I knew what these stories were about in broad stokes before anyone told me about them. On top of that we already have the greats like the Muppet and Disney versions, as well as the 1951 version with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, you can even include the Bill Murray starring Scrooged, so do we really need another? I guess I shouldn't be so cynical, of course we can use another version, so long as the creative team brings something new to the screen.

With this new version from director Robert Zemeckis and star Jim Carrey we get a take on the Charles Dicken's classic that is worthy of the big screen and high quality Blu-ray treatment in a few different ways. These ways include it being a surprisingly faithful take on the story, Zemeckis pioneering of technology, and it just looks really good.

The movie opens with the opening of the Dickens text and a zoom through the opening sentence: "Marley was dead: to begin with." Emphasis on the word "dead." This was a good sign this was going to be different, more serious and not as jokey as one would expect from a Jim Carrey film. The second sign was the lingering on the dead body of Marley in his wooden coffin as Scrooge haggles price with the undertaker, it is a little creepy and unsettling. Then there is the use of old English style dialogue, which feels like it was taken right from the text. These things taken together all contribute to the fresh feel of this film.

The story plays out in the fashion one would expect. The miserly Scrooge is taught lessons by a trio of spirits, all of which visit him one Christmas eve sparking a sharp change in his attitude towards the holiday and those around him. Jim Carrey as Scrooge (and the three Christmas spirits) turns in a fine performance where he puts his rubber face to great use. With Zemeckis' overall darker approach to the material, room was afforded for Carrey to really get into the character and give us a Scrooge with more emotional resonance than one would expect.

Everything just comes together so well that I find it hard to deny this some shelf space next to the other versions of the story. There are comic elements to be sure, but they are placed within the context of the character's plight and work well within the context. However, it is not the comedy that held my attention, it is the serious approach and the revelations about Scrooge that lead to his ultimate change. For an animated film, it all felt very organic.

I suspect the story was the easiest part of the project to work out. The technique is another matter all together. Robert Zemeckis has been pushing motion capture technology for years now, first with The Polar Express and then Beowulf. It is amazing technology and while it still has not crossed the uncanny valley, he has been leading the charge and making great strides in what can be done. What he has accomplished here is quite amazing. There is an amazing amount of reality and detail with these animated images.

One of the special features dives right into how it was done. You can watch the film as it is being made on a sound stage, the actors wearing complex camera rigs with dots on their faces to use as reference points. This can be viewed picture-in-picture style so you can see the direct relationship between the capture of motion and final product. it is nothing short of amazing. On top of that there is a commentary track with Robert Zemeckis where he goes into greater detail about the application of technology. Love it or hate it, I am glad to see such a well regarded director willing to push the envelope and experiment with new ways to implement technology in this digital age.

Another reason to like this Blu-ray is that it looks absolutely stunning. There is so much detail in every shot. Colors are solid and blacks are rich and do not disguise details. There is a lot of darkness in this movie, mostly to enhance the gloom around good old Ebenezer, but there is always a touch of color, just look at the candle glow, or the more colorful fantasy elements where the darkness recedes. The 2.35:1 frame is something to behold. I encourage you to take in the loving details that have been crafted and captured in this transfer.

Not to be left out, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is pretty great as well. The dialogue is always crisp and clear, the score is understated and great, but it shines in the atmospherics and sound effects. A great scene for sound is the impending visit of Jacob Marley when the bells all start to ring and then the sounds of the chains. There are other excellent scenes too, but I will leave them for you to discover.

There are some nice extras also included in this set. I have already mentioned he unfinished footage and Zemeckis commentary, so I won't go over them again here. Suffice to say it is pretty spectacular and worth the time.
  • Capturing Dickens: A Novel Retelling. This is a promotional style featurette where there is discussion of the team justifying the retelling and then talk about the motion capture technique that is used.
  • Countdown to Christmas Interactive Calendar. Here is a good example of filler. It is a exactly what it says it is. Choose a number and it will zoom in on an animated toy.
  • On Set with Sammi. Sammi Hanratty is a young actress who plays a number of child characters in the film. This follows her around as she goes trough the motion capture process. It is a fun watch.
  • Deleted Scenes. A collection of six scenes in various stages of completion. The run approximately 8.5 minutes. Nothing particularly great story wise, but it is interesting to see the composites of unfinished sequences.
Bottomline. More than just a great holiday tale, A Christmas Carol is a fantastic ghost story. This is a great new telling of the story and I suspect it will enter my annual holiday viewing schedule. The Blu-ray looks great and I think I may even enjoy it more know than I did in the theaters. 

Highly Recommended.

Looking to save some cash? Here is a coupon Disney has provided good for $10 off the 4 disk Blu-ray edition.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: A Christmas Carol (2009) on Blogcritics.

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