Sunday, December 5, 2010

Double Dose 'o Disney: A Christmas Carol (2009) and The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)

Disney's marketing acumen has always been top-notch. Whether it was releasing a new animated film (as they just did with Tangled), or opening the vault to re-release (in an approximate 7-year cycle) one of their classic animated feature films (the recent Blu Ray of Fantasia, for example), Disney has always had a knack for keeping their name front and centre with, if nothing else, a new generation of children. So, the recent back-to-back releases of the DVDs of their A Christmas Carol (2009) and The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010) were equally timely.

Released last Christmas to generally iffy reviews, Robert Zemeckis's latest motion-capture (mo-cap) experiment, A Christmas Carol, was held back for its first DVD release until just last week, a year after its theatrical launch. This is generally not the way things happen anymore. Usually, a film is in the theatres and then three to five months later it comes to On Demand and DVD. But Disney isn't stupid. A DVD release of A Christmas Carol in April or May would have been just dumb. Nobody would have rented it, so Disney wisely bit the bullet, held it a year, and are now cashing in.

Jim Carrey as Scrooooge!
Is it as ordinary as the critics indicated last year? Yes and no. An oft-told tale, A Christmas Carol's ne plus ultra version is and always will be the sublime 1951 version starring Alastair Sim. Zemeckis, after claiming in interviews he went back to Dickens' short novel for the adaptation, has wisely stuck pretty close to the Sim version. Mixing dialogue and incidents from both the novel and the 1951 version, Zemeckis has crafted a reasonably faithful and occasionally moving take on the tale. Jim Carrey, as Scrooge and the three Spirits, is fine in all his roles (actors such as Gary Oldman and Bob Hoskins all take multiple parts). Carrey has based his voice on Sim (you can close your eyes and think you are listening to Alastair, not Carrey), which I'm comfortable thinking of it as an homage, not a robbery. However, I honestly have never quite understood Zemeckis' obsession with mo-cap. It's a great technique for creating characters like Gollum in Lord of the Rings or King Kong in King Kong, but what is the purpose of doing it for a whole movie? (and don't get me started on bloody Avatar!)

Gollum in LOTR
Setting that aside for a moment, he and his staff have come a long way with the technique since their first attempt in The Polar Express (I'm in a big minority in quite enjoying that film). The problem for most people with the film is that it was then impossible to properly mo-cap eyes, so all the characters in Polar Express looked like really scary dolls. I never saw Beowulf (again, at the time, thinking 'I don't get the point of doing it like this'), but, from the bits I saw, the imagery got better. With A Christmas Carol, he has finally (mostly) solved the scary-eyes issue. The visual freedom this technique gave Zemeckis is quite apparent in some of the things he does, but I ask, why not just do it as a straight animated picture?

There's even one moment of genius in this version. The Ghost of Christmas Past is presented as a white, flickering, breathy-voiced candle. Looking and sounding like it is on the verge of snuffing out at any moment, The Ghost is an almost perfect visual embodiment of the long-gone past. The past lives precariously in our memories – likely to go out at any second – if we don't keep connecting to them in a positive way. The Ghost of Christmas To Come is also mostly successful. Expanding a great deal on what they did in the Sim version, Zemeckis shrinks Scrooge down to rat size as he is chased by all manner of real and imagined beasties. It goes on too long, but it is the one time the film radically departed from the 1951 version. The choices made for The Ghost of Christmas Present were unfortunate: Scrooge and The Ghost spend the majority of the time in the room in Scrooge's house, as the images pass before them on the floor of the room. It doesn't work, especially on a TV screen.

But the major problem still remains why do a feature-length mo-cap film? When all the characters are done this way, it has a tendency to leave the viewer feeling cold and a little unnerved (and no, I don't mean by things as simple as the dead-doll eyes). This film (and frankly all of Zemeckis's mo-cap pictures) is the movie equivalent of photo-realism paintings: A) what's the point and B) why bother? Zemeckis might say that the technique allows the film to look just this side of real, but permit his characters do things all but impossible in a live-action film. That may be what he says, but it still is a weak argument.

Disney didn't stop with just A Christmas Carol this season; they also released to DVD the Nicolas Cage fantasy film, The Sorcerer's Apprentice last Tuesday. Released in the summer to generally even worse reviews than A Christmas Carol, Disney timed the release of this film on DVD with their relaunch of their widely loved (but not by me) Fantasia. Within Fantasia is the famous bit with Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice who gets into all sorts of trouble when he tries to use magic to clean a room. The Cage feature film of the same name is inspired by that short piece within Fantasia. And yes, they replicate the Mickey moment very well.

The set up is very muddled. Cage is Balthazar Blake, a centuries-old sorcerer who, many moons prior, locked two other villainous sorcerers inside a magically sealed nesting doll. He is then tasked by a dying Merlin to find 'the one' who will become his apprentice and eventually succeed Blake. This of course takes until early 21st century when he encounters a 10-year-old boy – later to become 20-year-old Dave Stutler, played by Canadian Jay Baruchel – who is probably the one. But before Blake can fully convince the boy, one of the villains, Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina), is freed. Blake and Horvath fight and then they are magically trapped inside a sealed vase for 10 years. Ten years later, Stutler is a marbled-mouthed, shy, nerdish physics wiz who was traumatized by this encounter. Blake and Horvath are freed and then the story really begins. This all happens in the first ten minutes.

Jay Baruchel & Original Apprentice
If you cannot keep up to this very convoluted kick-off, you are libel to be so confused you never can get back into the film. For whatever reason, I was able to keep up and I was very pleasantly surprised at how lively and entertaining the film actually is. Sure, the villain comes across as too Disneyfied at times, particularly when he seems to have Blake and Stutler where he wants him and then, more than once, is easily chased away. Time and again, Horvath does irrational things that suggests the screenwriters (five are listed) painted themselves into a corner and had to do something to dig themselves out. They chose some rather absurd solutions. That all said, the film is frequently deliberately laugh-out-loud funny, and Cage is having a blast. Cage is an odd actor who can sometimes do some really weird things when he acts (see Vampire's Kiss (1989) and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) for evidence) that people either cannot abide, or, like me, abide just fine. He has made several really dumb movies, like Ghost Rider (2008), watchable. He does the same here, but the material is actually reasonably solid.

A few times, you can tell people in their forties or older probably wrote this, especially when they have a 20-year-old say things like this: Horvath recruits a Criss-Angel like popular magician who's really a sorcerer, Drake Stone (Toby Kebbell), to assist him in killing Stutler. Stutler and Stone start a battle in a men's room. At one point, Stone says, “Don't you know who I am?” To which Stutler says “I don't know. A member of Depeche Mode?” It's a funny exchange, well delivered, but I really doubt most 20-year-olds would have a clue who or what is Depeche Mode. But 40+ screenwriters sure would. Stuff like that occasionally threw me out of the film. Another minus was the wasting of the wonderful Alice Krige (the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact) in a tiny part as the supposed villainess of the piece. But with all that, this is a thoroughly enjoyable kids fantasy that, forgiving the sloppy screenwriting, is funny, moves quickly and manages to bring it in under 110 minutes; something of a feat in this day of the bloated epics that clutter up most megaplexes during the year.

 David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

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