In the long string of adaptations of Charles Dickens' 1843 classic, possibly the greatest contribution of Disney's A Christmas Carol is that it reminds us that this is a dark and scary ghost story. Screenwriter and director Robert Zemeckis focuses on the personal horror of a miserable man, literally haunted by the prospect of living eternally in despair for his selfish choices.

That Zemeckis would focus on this should come as no surprise, given his history as a director and producer—What Lies Beneath, Death Becomes Her, The Frighteners, Th13teen Ghosts, Gothika, Ghost Ship, and The House on Haunted Hill. Now, his version of A Christmas Carol is easily the most unnerving of all the film adaptations of the story. Some of the movie's best moments involved the haunting of Scrooge—especially an early scene where Scrooge can only sit and wait as he hears the terrifying THUD-drag-THUD of something approaching in the dark.

Jim Carrey provides the voice of Ebenezer Scrooge

Jim Carrey provides the voice of Ebenezer Scrooge

Wait. Terror? Darkness? Isn't this a Disney film, starring a mugging Jim Carrey and directed by the guy behind the bright and fanciful ThePolar Express? Yes, but families should know this is a far cry from The Muppet Christmas Carol. It will scare the stockings off of little kids. Which is strange, because at times, it seems to be aimed at kids with gags and Polar Express-like action sequences (Scrooge shooting like a rocket into the starry sky, shrinking to the size of a rat, sliding down London's drain pipes, running from giant horses, etc). Families with young children will be better off renting the Muppet version.

OK, so it's not a kid flick. But how does it fare in adapting Dickens for other audiences? It's a mixed bag.

The good: Zemeckis nails the terror of revisiting one's painful and regrettable moments of selfishness with an understanding that it will doom your future. It excels in portraying a mean and horrible old man whose life is empty and sad because he's pushed everyone away from him. (In fact, this may be filmdom's most despicable Scrooge yet, as Carrey plays him so seething that any words he speaks to people seem to grind out with spite.) The film shows how a person's good nature, emotions and compassion are pushed down by hurt and greed.

Visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley

Visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley

But on the other side of the coin, Scrooge's redemption is not as convincing as in other adaptations. The reawakening of his spirit is far overshadowed by the darker end of the spectrum. While there is joy in this Scrooge's journey, it doesn't unfold naturally. I wasn't happy for Scrooge. I didn't feel his conversion; it just happened. While I felt his horror and misery, I didn't feel his victory. It lacked heart—which might be because it spends very little time on the story's lovable characters, like Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim.

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Still, this is one of the most (if not the most) faithful film adaptations of the story. While some visual bits and action sequences are added, almost all of the dialogue is verbatim from the book (which, incidentally, also includes a lack of focus on Tiny Tim). Zemeckis very much tells the story that Dickens told. So why is the triumph of redemption not as affecting?

I think it's because the computer animation dulls the message. It's like the difference between a live stage show and one acted out by Hall of Presidents-type automatons. Disney's A Christmas Carol seems lifeless at times because the motion-captured characters are lifeless. And yet the animation is hardly a failure; its vivid, three-dimensional look is rich and detailed. Key characters like Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present are incredibly lifelike. The backgrounds are beautiful. The sweeping flight over London during the titles is gorgeous and fun. On the other hand, secondary characters have plastic faces and dead eyes, the big Fezziwig party looks like bad video game footage, and the Ghost of Christmas Past has a flame head with Jim Carrey's face superimposed over it. It's almost laughable but creepy—much like the baby-faced sun from the Teletubbies.

The Ghost of Christmas Present has a word with Scrooge

The Ghost of Christmas Present has a word with Scrooge

Still, because Zemeckis relies so much on Dickens' story and dialogue, there are some thought-provoking moments that many adaptations leave out. Most versions include the idea of living with Christmas in your heart all year, but this is the first one in which I was affected by nephew Fred's assertion that Christmas has done him well because it helps him view other people as fellow travelers and not a lower species unworthy of respect or fellowship.

This version also made me most clearly see connections to faith life of any other version I've seen. For instance, I'd never seen The Ghost of Christmas Present as a representation of Christ, but here, he had a mix of joy, truth-telling, charisma, teaching, love, and justified anger that I associate with Jesus.

Disney's A Christmas Carol also surprisingly contains some tough but important aspects of the book that most feel-good, family-friendly adaptations leave out. Zemeckis doesn't soften the terror of eternal damnation. The Ghost of Christmas Present tells Scrooge that many who claim Christmas actually know nothing of its real meaning. And then, Scrooge discovers two impoverished and creepy children, Ignorance and Want, living under the ghost's robes. The spirit tells him they belong to Man but are foolishly associated with Christmas. Zemeckis' loyalty to these Dickensian ideas is worthy of respect; these ideas need to be heard.

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Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim (both voiced by Gary Oldman)

Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim (both voiced by Gary Oldman)

But they also contribute to the confusion. It feels like Zemeckis wanted to make one movie (a scary and socially relevant ghost story) and Disney wanted another (A Polar Express-type movie with an old man falling down a lot for laughs). Each different side works but the mesh doesn't. I left the theater feeling like I saw another walk-through-the-motions adaptation of this well-worn tale. It made me ask: Do we need more versions of this story? Is there anything left to add to A Christmas Carol? Can a filmmaker at this point do anything fresh and visionary with this story?

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. What do you think of the Ghost of Christmas Present's assertion that many who claim to act on the account of Christmas should be held accountable for their own actions? What does this mean?

  2. What specifically do you think changes Scrooge's heart the most? Do you think the threat of eternal punishment (or just death) is more or less affecting to you than reliving past mistakes? Which most forces you to desire an alteration of your life?

  3. What does the Ignorance and Want scene mean to you?

  4. Why do you think Dickens' Christmas tale is so popular? Especially considering how dark it really is?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Disney's A Christmas Carol is rated PG for some suggestive choreography and scary images. Despite being PG, it's not a film for young children, probably those 8 and under. The movie is very dark and should be viewed as a ghost story—with more emphasis on the horror angle than most adaptations. The Ghost of Christmas Present has two creepy and horrible children living under his robes. When he dies, he graphically decays into a skeleton and crumbles into dust. Jacob Marley's dead corpse is seen in a coffin and later, as a ghost, has a disconnected jaw that is played for laughs but could also be disturbing to kids. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a shadow with a scary black hand that points out of the screen. He also sends nasty, red-eyed black horses after Scrooge in a terrifying pursuit.

Disney's A Christmas Carol
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(16 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for some suggestive choreography and scary images)
Directed By
Robert Zemeckis
Run Time
1 hour 36 minutes
Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Steve Valentine
Theatre Release
November 06, 2009 by Walt Disney Pictures
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