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MISTER DICKENS, I PRESUME?

Reel Time
Dale Hill
www.flickwitch.com

            A recent New Yorker cartoon showed a successful-looking gentleman standing in front of St. Peter's desk at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter looks down somewhat dubiously as the fellow says, “When times were good I let things trickle down.”

            When Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, times, for most people, were not good. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and the Robber Barons were pushing their workers as far as they could, seven days a week; and as you doubtless know, that included the children. There were absolutely no social programs in place (that goes for the USA at the time too), and any relief the poor could expect was in the hands of people like the cartoonish fellow who let things trickle down.

            Social Calvinism was on the rise in the wealthier parish churches. As James Burke said, the toney toffs worriedly asked, What do we owe to the people who slave for us? And from the pulpit came the reassuring answer: Nothing!

            On top of that, you couldn't even celebrate Christmas because it wasn't a holiday, so you had to work.

            After the Puritans cut off King Charles's head in 1649 and took over the country, they made it not only sacrilegious but literally illegal to celebrate Christmas. The holiday only returned with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. in a sort of idealized late-medieval mode where the wealthy landowners held open house for their poor-but-worthy tenants for twelve days every Christmas, with non-stop liquor and fatty foods.

            When Washington Irving wrote in 1820 about his trip to England in “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” he immortalized the tail-end of the old feudal generosity in his account of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall. (I love it that he also made enemies of some English critics – how dare an upstart colonial write the King's English so well!) So by the time Dickens needed money in 1843, only the Royals and the nobility and the factory owners had the money and free time to celebrate the birth of the Infant Lowly who was born in a cattle stall.

            I will bypass the wretched contretemps Dickens had with his publishers as he tried to get a pittance out of his Christmas story, which became so instantaneously popular that by three months later there were eight adaptations running in London theaters – they couldn't even wait for the following Yuletide.

            “A Christmas Carol” took a bit longer to catch on in the US, though there were some early stage plays. It was as late as the 1860s, when the country was looking for some grace and redemption after the Civil War, that the redemption of Scrooge really took hold all over the States.

            The number of stage adaptations is nearly equaled by the film adaptations, starting from the earliest silent days. I know you have a favorite, and so do I, but I won't mention mine so I won't impinge on yours. But there's a new film of “A Christmas Carol” in town, and it must be dealt with.

            Robert Zemeckis directed the new animated film for Disney, with the motion-capture computer animation that he used for “The Polar Express,” which I liked, and for “Beowulf,” which I didn't. This is a technique that takes some getting used to – it's similar to rotoscoping, but it looks weirdly realistic. I personally think it's going to be adjudged a dead end in computer animation, but what do I know?

            The motion capture is actually less than central in the new “A Christmas Carol” because the movie was filmed in the recently improved 3D process, which shows in the number of scenes where elements fly out of the screen directly at the viewer. This is, of course, an effect that is minimized if you're watching the movie in 2D, as most of us in Maine must do, which makes you more aware of the performances.

            I am happy to say that, in spite of the swooping flyovers of Victorian London that remind you of “Mary Poppins” but a lot faster, this adaptation remains firmly grounded in the Dickens story. The dialogue is for the most part in Dickens's own words, and the characters, such as Bob Hoskins as Mister Fezziwig, are a delight.

            I can hardly bear to say that Jim Carrey is the best thing in this movie, but there it is. The master of over-playing and recklessness stays so close to the author's intent in this adaptation that he comes dangerously close to creating a real Scrooge, one whose redemption is almost as important to us as the survival of Tiny Tim.

            That isn't to say that the production isn't excessive. The Third Spirit is so silent (played by Jim Carrey, silently, how?) that the episode is prolonged for a chase by the Costa Bower from “Darby O'Gill and the Little People,” proving that Disney is never too proud to steal from himself.

            A word about the music for the movie: composed by Alan Silvestri, it uses traditional Christmas carols to good effect, without ever turning rock-ish or anything that violates the period, but with plenty of jollity.  In the place of the usual breathy she-spirit lyric for the closing credits, Silvestri has composed a carol on Tiny Tim's most famous utterance that is really quite fine. It's based on the melodic contours of “Good King Wenceslas,” but none the worse for that, and it would be churlish of me to suggest that Andrea Bocelli doesn't sing the living daylights out of it.