Disney's A Christmas Carol: A Missed Opportunity

By Jonathan Wright-Gray 12-15-2009

Disney's new high-tech, 3-D animated version of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol, already a box office smash well before Thanksgiving, is a film that comes with high expectations. (It should, with ticket prices as high as $14 for the 3-D version.) First, don't be misled by the Disney label into thinking this is a film for young children. Get the Mickey Mouse or Muppet versions for that. This intends to be a more or less faithful retelling of a 19th century adult morality tale, with all the harsh realities of the original, and all the vividness that Robert Zemeckis' "performance capture" video technique (also used in The Polar Express and Beowulf) can provide. Somewhere along the way, however, the desire to entertain overshadows the moral values and insight into human nature inherent in Dicken's story.

After flying us over 19th century London, the film introduces us to the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, stealing pennies from the eyes of his dead partner, Joseph Marley, after reluctantly paying for his burial. The visual caricature of Jim Carrey, who plays Scrooge, is marvelous, and the digital animation technique is mesmerizing in its ability to draw us so intimately into the emotions of the characters on the screen. The opening scenes on Christmas Eve seven years later, when Scrooge closes up his shop and goes home to encounter the ghost of his former partner, are done in such marvelously effective detail, one wonders whether the movie will take at least three hours to tell the tale. The evocation of Scrooge's foul mood in response to the coming holiday, and the fear that overtakes him that night, is masterful.

Likewise, the creative depiction of the Ghost of Christmas Past in the form of a candle flame (also played by Carrey) is incredibly effective, as the ever-changing face in the flame looks upon Scrooge to note and name the emotions the scenes from his youth and young adulthood evoke in him. To have Carrey play both parts, one face reflecting the other, is just right -- for we are ultimately judged not from without, but by the consciousness and conscience that grows within us. This is perhaps the high point of the film, though more could have been done to portray the feelings of love and loneliness in the youthful Ebenezer in these scenes, using the same kind of vividness that showed us his recalcitrant greediness and his fear earlier.

The pace of the film does pick up as we move to the Ghost of Christmas Present. The second ghost is also portrayed quite effectively from an entertainment point of view. But then we come to the scene where the ghost's skirts are parted to reveal two pathetic figures, hungry and wretched children named as Ignorance and Want. As Scrooge protests their appearance, his own words are flung back at him as the ghost's face changes into his own: "Are there no prisons, are there no work houses?"

Dicken's writing is full of commentary on the social injustices of his day. But here the film abdicates from its opportunity and responsibility to be faithful to the story. The two waifs are portrayed not in a way that evokes any compassion for their condition, but merely as objects to be feared-from whom one wants to gain as much emotional distance as possible.

But it is in the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that the movie most disappoints. Ebenezer has already been moved and changed by his night visions, though we do not yet know just how. Here he is confronted with his own mortality-the presumed most powerful motivation to change his ways. He sees the uncaring ways in which others will respond to his death, and then goes on a wild cartoon ride with black horses pulling a hearse. This scene was far too long, and the emotion evoked was more the excitement and fear-tinged fun of a wild ride, rather than anything connected to genuine fear of death or remorse. It seemed to be there for pure entertainment value, and in fact pulled the viewer away from deeper feelings that Scrooge would have been experiencing. One final scene, in which he sees himself falling into his coffin, was very effective and dreamlike, but by then the film had already pulled us back from the abyss and told us: "Don't worry, you don't have to feel anything too real here -- this is just a good show!"

And so the end of the film loses much of the power of the original story. Scrooge's laughter upon awakening and discovering he has not missed Christmas is somehow shallow, when it should have had more of the same emotional intensity with which the film began. True joy comes from facing the darkness and failures of our lives honestly and courageously. Scrooges' visions are an invitation to that kind of authenticity. This is a story about conversion, in the religious sense-about a new beginning. But genuine conversion does not grow out of fear-it comes from a compassionate and merciful reassessment of the past, and from seeing new and hope-filled possibilities for the future.

The conversions from America's "Great Awakening" in 1741, when Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," were short-lived because they were based too much on the emotion of fear. Thirty years later, the churches were as empty as they had been before. Foxhole conversions are often as shallow as the stereotype implies. Fear may bring us to the brink of conversion, but it cannot complete the task.

Dicken's story invites his protagonist to muster the courage to face himself honestly, and from that self-encounter, find the courage to change. All the movie ultimately offers us is the conventional response of fear and escapism in the face of such an invitation. It opts for shallow entertainment, rather than transformation and joy. And for that, its makers will no doubt be financially rewarded. Jesus warned about such choices: "

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