Movie Review - A Christmas Carol (2009)

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Robert Zemickis

The movie was scary, to begin with. There can be no doubt whatever about that.

Violent and Intense Content:
Once upon a time— of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve— Jacob Marley died. He was, and he looked, as dead as a doornail.

Disney’s A Christmas Carol begins in the tradition of so many other Disney films based on literature, with a book turning to the first lines of the story. And, of course, the first line of A Christmas Carol is the simple declaration that Marley was dead. The very typesetting (which is rather ominous) hinted at the tone of the rest of the movie, and the ink sketch of Marley’s scowling face— white in his coffin— with tuppence over his eyes— and the transition of that image from ink to the color and dimension of Disney’s most life-like (or, in this instance, most death-like) animation to date, set the stage quite well for a more frightening Christmas Carol than we’ve been accustomed to.

Ordinarily, it might have been enough to say that, for example, Marley’s ghost appears at the knocker of Scrooge’s front door, which might be alarming for children. I think, though, that his ghost has appeared far too many times before, for a statement that mild to communicate what it needs to. In previous films by the same title, Marley’s fate was characterized primarily by sadness. Not so, here. What was formerly sad is, in this film, scary; what was once a cry of lament is now a cry of anguish; and whatever hinted at meekness in Marley’s ghost— or any of the ghosts in Dickens’ Ghostly little book— has been succeeded by a sinister inclination to startle the audience*.

And Marley, it will be remembered, isn’t the only character who could be expected to appear in a frightening way. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, profiting by creative license, enters the story as a mere shadow, with no visible substance to cause it— with no visible substance at all, in fact… until the scene where it shoots out a black, skeleton hand and grabs an unsuspecting Scrooge by his nightgown. Anyone with a decent imagination can picture what it does to an unsuspecting audience. Scrooge’s grave-side confession and plea for mercy are, like the portrayal of Marley’s ghost, more scary than sad— and good reason for it, in this version, in which Scrooge falls into his own grave, hanging on by a tree root, a glowing red coffin below him, and the Ghost, eyes burning, above him.

New segments in the movie involve Scrooge running for his life from a red-eyed, half-shadow, half-skeletal pair of horses drawing a black hearse after them through the streets of London. At one point in the scene, giant phantoms begin coming up out of the ground, laughing and trying to lay hold of Scrooge. Overall, the film is scary in a roller-coaster fashion, rather than a haunted-house fashion; but at that point, the line between the two gets blurred. An earlier scene depicts the Ghost of Christmas Present—ordinarily the least likely ghost of any of them to inspire fright—whose time on this earth ends at midnight, hearing the ringing of the hour and suddenly clutching at his chest in agony, and doing so with each toll of the bell until he at last falls to the ground, suddenly ages, transforms into a skeleton, and dissolves into the wind— laughing all the time. If you want a word for it, it’s disturbing. If you don’t mind using two words, it’s extremely disturbing. Meanwhile, the allegories of Ignorance and Want are transforming from ragged children to violent, suggestive or even mad adults.

Fear is not the only emotion Scrooge can feel, though; and his understanding of death changes from his original indifference at Marley’s funeral. He is made to feel the loss of Tiny Tim as much, I believe, as he was ever made to feel it in film before. The same may, perhaps, be said of families in the audience who have experienced the death of a child.

The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

Marley, dead seven years, would seem to be about as fit a witness to the nature of eternal suffering as anyone except the One who appointed it— and that One having given no description of the place of torment except that it is a place of fire, darkness, decay, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. All of these things Marley bears testimony to, but would add a few more that aren’t to be found in Scripture. Travel— constant, wearying, no rest, no lingering— is the lot appointed to Jacob Marley, seven years dead. And the ghosts who appear at his departure are beaten relentlessly by enormous coins, keys and other implements of trade. All are fettered and dragging chains.

If Dickens’ A Christmas Carol had not been written as a parable— with all its ghosts, of Christmas or otherwise— there would have been a greater problem with this film than that of Marley’s startling the audience. Chains, coins, even the fruitless toil of constant travel, are understood literally by Scrooge, and figuratively by those seeing the film. At least, that is the idea. As with any story that combines fantasy with reality— or reality with fantasy— there is the potential for some of the allegory to taint a reader or viewer’s understanding of the real thing.

There’s also the potential for subtle propaganda to influence people by painting things with a broad brush and a dark tone, whatever genre the film may be. Ignorance and Want growing up into wicked adults could very well communicate the idea that poverty and an inadequate education are the causes of sin. In another scene, the movie borrows from one of the more obscure religious discussions in the book; one that might have been better left out. Scrooge accuses the Ghost of Christmas Present of depriving the poor every seventh day by closing the business establishments where they would have been allowed to cook their dinners; and the Ghost rebukes him, declaring that there are those who claim to know him and his brothers, and who do their selfish, evil deeds in their name, but are strangers to them. Disney only added the phrase “so-called men of the cloth” to the description of these bigots and hypocrites. With or without this questionable addition, the scene’s problematic because it associates the doctrine of the Sabbath (which was at the very least originally ordained by God) with corrupt religious people.

And then there are some other religious references that made it straight from the book to the movie. When Scrooge’s nephew Fred asks him to come dine with them tomorrow, the book says, “Scrooge said that he would see him— yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first.” The movie, however, does not have the benefit of a narrator, so Scrooge’s curse is said more plainly.

Mrs. Dilber, when the changed Scrooge appears at the top of the stairs, exclaims seriously (but with doubtful sincerity), “Oh my God!” and “heaven” comes in as an exclamation a couple of times during the movie.

Other potentially offensive language includes “Blast!” and the use of the word “ass” in Fred’s game of Yes-and-No to mean both an animal and an idiot. That phrase, being only a shadow of Christmas present the first time, is repeated as part of Christmas reality toward the end of the film.

Sexual Content:Ditto the low necklines that came to Fred’s party. Christmas at Fezziwig’s features similarly-dressed women, and adds a romantic waltz. Anyone who’s seen or read any version of A Christmas Carol already knows that the Ghost of Christmas Present is going to be bare-chested, but his protégé, the girl Want, probably will not be expected to grow up to assume the garb and mannerisms of a woman of the night, as she does in that sudden transformation scene.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
What would A Christmas Carol be without Christmas punch? A little better off, probably, than “Here We Come A-Wassailing” would be without the wassail. Besides those traditionally alcoholic drinks, the film brings in phantom bottles and barrels during the chase scene with the horses. A gentleman takes snuff.

With those warnings having been said, though, I must say that I was really taken aback at the quality of the movie. The technology that has enabled artists to create such splendid, life-like images as are showcased in films like Disney’s A Christmas Carol— that technology is a marvelous thing. It really has the power to bring new life into a story that has already been told countless times before, and it, unlike any other medium, I believe, has the power to draw an audience mind and body into the characters’ own experience. I am still in awe of the animation. And I’m still not sure I could walk a straight line after some of that high-speed visual maneuvering.

The thing about technology like this is that filmmakers can communicate the mood of a movie a lot better than they used to be able to, whatever that mood might be. In the case of Disney’s A Christmas Carol, the mood was scary. This really isn’t a film made for children, and it’s definitely not suitable for children, either. Twelve years old is the youngest I would feel comfortable suggesting this A Christmas Carol to, and even then, parental guidance is something I would suggest for anyone who isn’t an adult.

The scene involving the phantoms rising up out of the ground while Scrooge runs from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come may be too intense for younger viewers (and even those aren’t all that young, by my recommendation), and, as I mentioned, the scariness changes in style at that point, so that families may end up choosing to turn away from that scene, anyway. The scene of the Ghost of Christmas Present’s death, I do not recommend for viewing. It is simply too disturbing and too unnecessary (and by looking away, you also avoid Want’s suggestive behavior).

Let me just add, as a postscript, that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has occasionally been charged with preaching humanism, and this is a theme that (whether it’s in the book or not) has shown up in some of the film adaptations. In Disney’s A Christmas Carol, however, I believe there are enough explicit (though usually brief) Christian references and images to suggest that Scrooge’s change of heart was brought about by true conversion. It must be understood that the use of Christmas carols with lyrics like “Christ is born in Bethlehem,” “God and sinners reconciled,” and “the Lord is come; Let earth receive her King”— the Cratchit family being seen to pray before dinner— the Ghost of Christmas Present’s “Peace on earth, good will toward men!”— the view of the cross on the church steeple— the changed Scrooge’s hail of “Glad tidings!”— all these things may be surprising in a Disney film, but they do not make A Christmas Carol a Christian film, and they do not mean that Disney is on our side. They do, however, make for more comfortable viewing… if you’re comfortable watching scary movies, of course.

* Spoiler Warning (You may want to read the conclusion to the review to find out my recommended age range first, if you are looking for particulars for the sake of the young children in your family) - For those of you who really hate to be startled— well, this still may not be the best movie for you, but here are spoilers about the worst of it. Marley’s ghost, appearing at Scrooge’s knocker, remains still for a while, and then sort of jumps out at the audience. After Scrooge hears the bells ringing in his room, and Marley’s ghost can be heard approaching on the other side of the door, ghostly chains and boxes are suddenly (there’s a reason I’m warning you about it) catapulted through the door. After Marley exits the room and reveals the other ghosts, a ghost is seen pitying a homeless woman; this ghost sees Scrooge and rushes toward him with a plea to help the woman. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears as a shadow, Scrooge speaks to it, receives no reply, repeats “Lead on!” and then the Ghost jumps out and grabs him.

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