A Christmas Carol: The Musical Review
You know where you are with the Hallmark Channel, the producers of this 2004 adaptation of A Christmas Carol. As this testifies, a Hallmark production has stars but not those capable of opening a film, even one released on a quiet weekend. Therefore, we have Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) as Ebenezer Scrooge, Jason Alexander (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm) as Jacob Marley, Jesse L. Martin (Law & Order) as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Jane Krakowski (Ally McBeal) as the Ghost of Christmas Past. That's not necessarily a bad cast, indeed for television, it's rather a good one but I doubt there's many in the world who await a Kelsey Grammer movie with anything even approaching excitement outside of, say, his immediate family.
Actually, that description is rather disparaging of this version of A Christmas Carol, the peculiar twist of which is that it's a musical. Not a film with songs as in A Muppet Christmas Carol, one of the definitive tellings of the tale, but a musical, which features very little dialogue that isn't tied to a melody. Even Kelsey Grammer holds a tune or two, with his rich baritone settling snugly around a set of traditionally-written showtunes. It all sounds as though it might be terrible so it's surprise when it isn't, at least not entirely so.
The story is indeed the one that we're well used to - on Christmas Eve, the petty and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is threatening to foreclose on the mortgages of some of London's poorer families should they not make their payments the following morning in spite of it being Christmas Day. Scrooge, for reasons that we discover later in the film, has little respect for Christmas and the traditions associated with it, declaring to one little girl that Christmas is, "...a humbug!" Even his one remaining employee, Bob Cratchit, finds little escape from Scrooge, who allows him but a morning off to prepare and to enjoy the Christmas feast with his family. That night, though, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his one-time partner, Jacob Marley, now bound by physical chains in the afterlife as he was once enslaved by finances in life. Marley warns Scrooge of the misery that he endures, born out of his unceasing love of money when he was alive, telling Scrooge that he will be visited by three more ghosts before the night is over - those of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future. As Marley disappears into the walls, the lights dim and Scrooge settles into his cold bed. He is, though, soon awakened by the tinkling of a bell and the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past, who takes Scrooge on a journey into the past that he'd sought to forget. As Marley's predictions come to pass, will Scrooge end the night as enslaved as his deceased partner or will a new sunrise bring with it a new Ebenezer Scrooge?
Aside from the songs, Hallmark have left the story of A Christmas Carol well alone, largely keeping to Charles Dickens' original story. Granted that it's a classic tale of redemption over one of the most important Christian holidays but so many more have tried to reinvent Dickens' tale that it's rather unexpected to have it so faithfully presented. There remain moments, though, when you wonder if your eyes are as deceiving as Scrooge's when he wonders if Marley is but a bit of undigested beef...more grave than gravy. A perfect example is the sweetly flirtatious Ghost of Christmas Past as played by Jane Krakowski, who not only glances at Scrooge in a manner that's not befitting to one who's dead but who twirls around one of his bedposts as though she were a pole dancer.
Just as unsuccessful are the CG effects, which suffer from what has been described as the Resident Evil effect. As in that videogame, where everything that wasn't pre-rendered sat out just waiting to be examined, even a young child could differentiate between what was real and was computer generated in this film. A book, possibly a distant cousin of the one employed by Eamonn Andrews, floats across Scrooge's bedroom to him from the hands of the Ghost of Christmas Past but it couldn't look any more fake if it was dangling from the end of a fishing rod that Jane Krakowski was unsuccessfully hiding from sight of the audience. Even less impressive is the opening view across a snowy London, which would be improved no end if you waved a snow globe before your eyes.
A typical Hallmark production, in other words, which features a diverse and a somewhat well-known cast with an equally diverse quality to the finished product. By no means is it the best recent Hallmark show - that is Merlin with Sam Neill and Miranda Richardson - but, again, by no means is it the worst. That particular honour falls to The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns, which stars Randy Quaid and Roger Daltrey and which is the most objectionable piece of paddywhackery I've witnessed outside of some tasteless homes in North America, the owners of which would have you believe that they were Irish. This, though, isn't bad...not quite A Muppet Christmas Carol nor the Alistair Sim version, nor even the Patrick Stewart one from a few years ago but better than the recent animated version.
A Christmas Carol has that slightly fuzzy, too-soft picture that you would expect of a recent television show, which, unlike some that have made it onto DVD, has not been filmed in High-Definition. Whilst this actually benefits the production by obscuring some of the worst CG imagery in the film it doesn't make the disc a particularly impressive one. As considered below, A Christmas Carol looks to have been pan-and-scanned, which reduces the quality of the transfer yet further.
The soundtrack is much better, though, and, by being in stereo, is perfectly complementary to the film with some excellent panning between speakers and a clear reproduction of the score, the songs and what little dialogue there is. The film is subtitled in English, including the lyrics to the songs and appear to be faithfully done.
Trailer (2m01s): Much as you would expect, there's highlights from the film that hints at the redemption sought by Scrooge on the night before Christmas. Unfortunately, this trailer is widescreen and letterboxed, which suggests that the 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the main feature is a pan-and-scanned version of the original production.
The end of November is much too early a time to be reviewing this in that another couple of weeks would have been perfect. What I suspect to be the wrong aspect ratio is where this release is a letdown for, otherwise, it's really not bad. I enjoy Christmas, though, and A Christmas Carol is a classic story for that celebration. Were it later in the year and snowing outside, I'd be enjoying this much more than I am now at the end of November, which suggests that, in a week or two, it will be revisited. Good, then, but probably just not good enough.