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Disney's "A Christmas Carol" (2009)
One might think that by now people would be sick of "A Christmas Carol," which exists in film and stage versions too numerous to mention. Yet, the story remains ever popular. The latest interpretation was offered up by Disney studios during the 2009 holiday season, with computerized images and 3-D viewing. The result is mixed.
When the film stays close in touch with Charles Dickens' own narrative, it is wonderful, so much so that I found myself smiling and thoroughly engrossed. When the film strays, it becomes puzzling, erratic, and a bit stupid.
Nevertheless, there are things about this version that make it especially interesting from the point of view of Christian viewers. In fact, I thought the film captured quite well the often overlooked Christian essence of Dickens' original story.
Many people think that "A Christmas Carol" is a secularized Christmas tale. Anyone who reads Dickens, however, will discover that the specifically Christian elements in the story are clear and pointed. Dickens' narrative calls attention to scripture in its description of Scrooge's fireplace, which is "paved with tiles illustrating the scriptures." His nephew refers to the "sacred and holy origins" of Christmas, while Marley's ghost laments that he lived out his life without ever once raising his eyes "to that blessed star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode." Tiny Tim is said to get pleasure from thinking that his own affliction might help people to think of "one who made lame beggars walk and the blind to see." And, of course, the name "Ebenezer" carries theological significance as a word signifying that God has helped, as revealed in the Old Testament. It is also true that throughout Dickens' story, his descriptions make frequent and positive references to churches and church bells. The men who visit Scrooge and ask him for a donation for the poor express their intention as a specifically "Christian" one.
In essence, Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is a strongly Christian story, one thoroughly rooted in the soil of that vague field known as "Christian art." How well does the Disney film capture and communicate this Christian essence?
I have to admit that I went to the film with low expectations, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how this production seemed infused with a Christian worldview that was both joyous and full of spiritual gravity. In fact, I would say that of the many version of the story that I have seen, this one is the most "Christian" of all.
Whereas Marley's lament never makes it into the script, and the fund-raiser's reference to "Christian cheer" is absent as well, there are other aspects to the film which infuse it with what can only be called an explicitly Christian spirit. The sound of familiar Christmas carols is heard throughout the musical score (especially notable is "Joy To The World"), and there are important and positive visual images of churches, one of which displays the cross in a very prominent way. Bob Cratchit's reflection on Tiny Tim's meditation concerning "One who made lame beggars walk and the blind to see" is included (although it is hard to catch unless one is looking for it). Interestingly, the film makers even introduce into the Scrooge story a Christian spiritual element from outside Dickens himself. In the novella, the young Scrooge is alone at his school reading about Ali Baba, but in the film he is seen alone singing, with melancholy tones, the chorus of "O Come All Ye Faithful" in the Latin "Venite Adoramus." If you listen for references to God, you'll hear them and in a respectful context, culminating in a wonderful song performed by Andrea Boccelli ("God Bless Us Everyone") which brings the film to a stirring conclusion as the end credits start to roll. It would be difficult to understand why this song could not be nominated for an Academy Award. I would expect that it would be.
The film takes what seems to be an obligatory potshot at clergy, through the words of the Ghost of Christmas Present, an element not drawn from Dickens (it seems to be more or less a politically correct Hollywood touch). This is the only negative reference to "things Christian" here. The movie's flaws, indeed, occur when it diverts from Dickens. The Ghost of Christmas Present, described by Dickens as "jovial," seems oddly manic in this film, a bit insane in my judgment, perhaps as a vehicle to allow Jim Carrey a bit of his typical weird trademark comedy. This ghost is quite creepy, which seems at odds with Dickens. The most questionable section of the film, however, is an inexplicable chase scene where Scrooge is running through the streets of London to escape a dark coach drawn by spectral horses, eventually shrinking down to the size of a mouse and talking in a strange voice that seems a combination of "Gollum" (from "Lord of the Rings") and Alvin the Chipmunk. It's almost as if the film makers believed that no modern audience could possibly sit for a full 90 minutes without at least one chase scene. At any rate, it adds nothing to the story except the opportunity to display the energies of 3-D imagery.
Some film critics have complained about the animation and the "dead eye" characters created through the imaging process. For me, this is a minor concern, and even if one grants it, I think the character of Scrooge is powerfully conceived. He comes across as an interesting and compelling character, and his transformation is vividly communicated. The solemn scenes of judgment, which draw upon traditional "hell imagery" and might be reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch (e.g. in the ghostly lamentations in the air following the appearance of Marley's Ghost), are memorable and truly haunting.
Overall, this version of the Dickens classic is both close to, and far from, the expressions of its original author. Nevertheless, for Christians who wonder if Hollywood is capable of producing anything infused with a Christian spirit, this film answers with a strong "yes."
Richard Terrell is a retired professor of Art, and is an associate director of AD LIB, a Christian retreat ministry for Christian writers and artists. His own involvement with "A Christmas Carol" is a solo dramatic presentation of the story performed most recently in Lincoln, Nebraska, as a benefit for the local People's City Mission.