Monday, May 9, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part XVI: There's more of gravy than of grave about you


Zemeckis' mo-cap efforts had been getting better, but with A Christmas Carol, the director does something he hadn't done in a full thirty years—namely, make a really bad movie.

Written and directed by Robert Zemeckis (based on the novella by Charles Dickens)
With Jim Carrey (Ebenezer Scrooge and several ghosts), Gary Oldman (Bob Cratchit, "Tiny" Tim Crachit, and another ghost, Jacob Marley), Robin Wright (Belle), Bob Hoskins (Fezziwig), and Colin Firth (Fred)

Spoiler alert: c'mon, man, for real?

If we, like Ebenezer Scrooge, went back a few Christmases, and if we stopped our retrogression in 2009, then what we'd find was Robert Zemeckis in the midst of his mo-cap revolution.  We'd further find that it was proceeding largely as planned.  Hell, in the winter of that year, it might have even seemed like it was picking up speed.

For that was the season that saw the very first film to emerge from Zemeckis' ImageMovers Digital, the production company within a production company that Zemeckis had built in order to prosecute his war on live action, and it was an adaptation of Charles Dickens' beloved moralistic classic, A Christmas Carol.  Of course, time and infamy have spoiled the ending of this success story: ImageMovers Digital's lifespan would be both bitter and brief.  But let's wait till our next chapter to fully chronicle the studio's sudden demise.

Not that it had all been sweetness and light beforehand, however: the adult-oriented experiment of Beowulf had performed rather middlingly in comparison to its budget, probably losing Zemeckis a few coins in the process.  That's why it seems so reasonably clear—bordering on a metaphysical certainty—that Carol was a deliberate attempt to tack back into the richer trade winds of outright family fare, a conscious effort to recreate the success (however baffling) of Zemeckis' other hit Christmas cartoon, The Polar Express.  And there were other parties to satisfy too: even though most of the new film's production was accomplished in-house, Zemeckis had made an alliance with Disney to fund and distribute the picture. One imagines that Disney was not about to foot any of the bill for a risky, off-brand proposition like Beowulf.  But a cartoon Christmas Carol?  That must have seemed more like their kind of jam—not to mention, money in the bank.

Well, Zemeckis' calculation may have been a little cynical—not that I totally doubt his sincerity, when he said he loved the novella and considered it one of his favorite time travel stories, a remark clearly intended to remind people of Back to the Future—but whether Zemeckis was in full-on mercenary mode when he made A Christmas Carol or not, it did work.  It made between 150-200% of its budget back worldwide, and this was more than enough to keep the lights on, and to keep Zemeckis' relationship with Disney comfortable.  Yes, the film was a (modest) hit!

But I'm afraid we're not here today to answer the question of why—because God knows I can't tell you that.  Quite the contrary: I think there's a really solid argument—and it is thus the argument that I shall be making—that Zemeckis' adaptation of A Christmas Carol is the single worst-directed film in its director's whole damned career.

Hey.  You can't win 'em all, man.

Now, this is not strictly identical with calling it "Robert Zemeckis' single worst film."  Oh, it certainly comes very close, but I mean it in the strictest technical sense: what we have here is a film with a veritable cornucopia of visual imagination—and, quite fatally, a complete inability on the part of its director to tell which visual ideas were the good ones, and which were film-breakingly awful.  It is thus an outrageous wreck of a motion picture, animated or otherwise.  And, indeed, there are only two things that do manage to elevate it above the wretched station of "Robert Zemeckis' single worst film."

The first is its central performance, for even though Zemeckis does his best to drown Jim Carrey in insufferable set-piece after insufferable set-piece, it remains a genuinely rewarding performance nonetheless.  The second is the naked fact that Dickens' Carol is such an inherently good narrative that it is almost impossible to actually fuck it up, regardless of how hard you try.  However, someone—someone named Bob—did appear to be trying extremely hard.

Our tale is a tale as old as time (or at least as old as 1843).  Once again, we are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge, an ancient and mean-minded old miser whose name was almost bound to become synonymous with skinflinted dickishness almost the instant his story was published.  Well, here we find Scrooge paying his last respects to his partner in usury, Jacob Marley, and stealing the coins off his dead eyelids in what shall turn out to be the film's single best moment—for all of its best moments take the form of unexpected lurches into genuine darkness, most of them in the film's rendition of the book's first stave.  (To be clear, they're only "unexpected" in the context of a movie pitched at children.  The novella itself, of course, is exceedingly stark in its outlook.)

Years pass, and Scrooge grows no warmer in his heart.  He is a tyrant to his clerk Bob Cratchit; he mocks charity workers; he glowers at carolers; and he throws his nephew's invitation to Christmas back in the young man's face.  And, as you know, this is when Marley decides to come back, alluding to his own damnation, and warning Scrooge that he shall suffer the visitation of three ghosts.  Those spirits duly arrive, and take Scrooge upon a magical mystery tour through his Christmasses past, present, and future.  In the end, they succeed in scaring the old bastard straight, and his experience has remolded him into a decent-hearted new man who finally makes amends for all his previous trespasses, making the most of the few precious years he has left on this Earth.

Like I said: very hard to fuck up.  And Zemeckis waits until he gets to the ghostly apparitions themselves before he does fuck anything up.  I have mentioned Carrey's performance as Scrooge already, and I'll mention it again: it is a fine, fine thing.  Even accounting for the fact that he's mo-capped into the body of a crumbling geezer, Carrey's voice borders on the unrecognizable as he disappears into the character.  He is an absolutely credible force of pure greed—yet a very specific kind of greed, too, born out of pain and pettiness and small-minded fear.  (Meanwhile, the limitations of early mo-cap work have probably never been so well-disguised as within the CGI artists' creaky creation of old Scrooge.  Whatever clunkiness accrues to the model's animation, it nevertheless reads as completely correct.  And the design itself is spot-on, to boot; my favorite touch must be the little old man hairs on the end of Scrooge's nose.)

Now, Carrey plays the three spirits, as well—though I assume he only actually plays two of them, since in keeping with tradition, only two of them have lines, and this Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come could hardly have been an actor in a mo-cap suit.  But, either way, these too are solid vocal performances.  And thus, even in the midst of film's very worst passages, so long as Carrey is allowed to speak Dickens' dialogue, it is not anything like a complete wash.

Sadly, large stretches of Scrooge's mystical experience do not involve the speaking of lines, and instead involve Zemeckis' capabilities as a storyteller at their most overheated—to the point that we find them melting down into slag.  In fairness, very little ever winds up being unclear about this simple and famous story, but each spiritual visitation is manifested in the shrillest and most lurid manner possible within the animated medium, which means, naturally, that they are quite shrill and lurid indeed.  The designs are all basically appealing (and drawn rather faithfully from the novella): Christmas Past is a flame with an extinguisher for a cap; Christmas Present is a gregarious giant with a vague resemblance to Jesus, if Jesus were really into lifting; and Christmas Future, naturally, is patterned upon the Grim Reaper.  It doesn't seem like you could go wrong with any of this, yet Zemeckis does.

He has Christmas Past fly Scrooge over hill and vale and through the time barrier and back in sequences that never, ever seem to fucking end (and when they do, we're only treated to the affront of a cartoon Bob Hoskins doing a flying triple-flip).  Following this, Zemeckis has Christmas Present, in the film's most outright bizarre conceit, pick up a whole room and fly it around London to visit Scrooge's acquaintances—this is where we get possibly the worst read of "God bless us, everyone!" ever uttered by a human being, which in the space of three seconds belies completely the alleged perfectionism that would seem to be the biggest justification for the whole mo-cap experiment in the first place.  But the real overarching problem is the way Scrooge manages to spy on his fellows—that is, through a transparent floor inside a flying building.  It makes you shout, "Dear God, what is happening here?"

I have not mentioned it, but with What Lies Beneath, Zemeckis became positively obsessed with transparent floors.  It's as idiosyncratic a directorial fetish as I've ever seen, and needless to say, it worked much better there.

Finally and worst of all—for this is where the film overexerts itself and collapses entirely—Zemeckis resorts to a damned chase scene with Christmas Future, which either lasts five minutes, or possibly five days.  I wasn't counting.  It's infuriating, really, because Christmas Future is otherwise so sublime: often nothing but a shadow cast on a wall, it's the kind of thing animation really was made for.  Yes, it was also made for the exact kind of dumbassed flights of fancy that define Zemeckis' Carol—however, it was not necessarily invented in order to put both things in the same damned movie, and especially not in a movie that, if it must find its footing in any codified genre, that genre needs to be "horror."  Unsurprisingly, the most effective moments in the film are when Zemeckis remembers that Dickens' Carol is dripping with religious terror.  Unfortunately, he doesn't keep that in mind throughout the feature.  The ultimate result is a rendition of Stave 4 that oscillates maniacally between good and bad, forcing you to resent the good almost as much as the bad, simply for being so closely associated with garbage.

(But, damn it, the good is really good.)

Perhaps the weakest link of all is Alan Silvestri, who had never turned in a bad score for Zemeckis until now; but here, taking Zemeckis' lead, he offers a fitfully awful one, electing to accompany Scrooge's terrifying spiritual struggles with a couple of jaunty little adventure marches. And, damn it, on reflection, it's hard to blame him outright—after all, it's obviously exactly what Zemeckis wanted.  But it's just so incredibly wrong that it honestly hurts.  (Hell, even Scrooged, the comedic version of A Christmas Carol, still doesn't imply that Bill Murray is having a fun time.)

Zemeckis' Carol, unfortunately, is such a tonal and aesthetic clusterfuck that it's frankly hard to believe anyone actually made it this way on purpose.  But, of course, someone did do it on purpose: this is animation we're talking about here.  Thus its enervating zaniness represents the return, in full terrible force, of Zemeckis' worst instincts as a director.

When it comes to his Motion Capture Trilogy, people are right to disdain it: at its very best, it's still not very good.  But people attack Zemeckis' effort for the wrong reasons.  It is not that these films were too technological and cold.  It is not that they lacked good screenplays, at least not all of them.  It is not even that they were kind of pointless, considering the advances that were being made in live-action/CGI hybridization at the same time.

No, it's this: it's because they permitted Zemeckis to work completely untethered to anything but his own sensibilities.  And, when Zemeckis found himself unbound by reality and physics, it turned out that the man who had earned his legend by making one amazing live-action cartoon after another just wasn't all that good at making animated ones.

Score:  4/10

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