The Summer is an odd time to be thinking about Christmas, but if you're Disney Marketing and you only have five months to run a promotional train tour cross country, it's the perfect time. The Christmas Carol Train Tour stopped here in Portland yesterday (one day only) and my wife and I took the tour and checked out a sneak peek of the film...cool stuff.
Disney, like always, runs a class act. They had period costumed carolers singing while you waited in line, provided cold water, and overall keep things running smoothly. As you approached the train, the platform was decked out with old style gates and lamps, plus vintage style itinerary kiosks which billowed fake snow out of the top...kinda comical in the heat of July, but still pretty neat. The train itself was completely "wrapped" in the art of A Christmas Carol, one big moving billboard. Disney doesn't really mess around.
Inside? Well one word applies...wow. As you made your way through all the train cars, you saw production art, costumes, maquettes, models, technical explanation (this film is done with Motion Capture) and there were even personal items on loan from the Charles Dickens' museum...actual letters, pens, writings, and books. I really liked seeing them. A nice touch near the end of the tour was the "morphing stations". You could turn your face into one of four characters from the movie, they send it to you later in an E-mail. This was slightly better in theory than it was in reality, but cool nonetheless. I made a weird Benjamin Button'esque Tiny Tim. Lastly, you get off the train and then head to a large inflated tent (that looks like a brick building) where they show you roughly 10 minutes of footage. I was pretty impressed with what I saw.
So far rendering people and facial movement in CG has been less than convincing in the movies. I think that's why Pixar stylizes humans so much, they understand the creepiness factor. We know what a close-up of a human speaking looks like, how the face moves and contorts...and CG hasn't really captured that convincingly yet. Maybe it isn't a matter of the quality of the animator, maybe the problem is in us...the viewer. We know it isn't real, so our brains don't accept it. It appears to me (from just the small bit I saw) that Disney is trying to walk the line with facial features in this movie, somewhat stylized, somewhat real...a balance. Jim Carrey's Ebenezer is real...yet exaggerated. His face is pointy and wrinkled, but he looks like a real old man. If you were to see somebody like that in person, you'd freak out. The distraction of the acceptance (or not) is most likely the hardest thing to overcome in these CG movies. That remains to be seen in the case of this film.
I was satisfied with the overall design look, the interiors, the cityscape of 1840s England...all as wonderfully done as you'd expect it to be with carte blanche computer graphics at their disposal. I liked how Big Ben was not quite finished being built, accurate for the period when Dickens wrote it.
If it seems I'm taking a "wait and see" attitude, it's because I am. Disney is usually a safe bet to produce reasonable quality, but now they're taking one of the best stories ever written, and feeding it through their merchandising machine. A Christmas Carol is one of my all time favorites (my wife certainly knows this) and if you're going to do it...you'd better do it well. I realize there have been lots of crappy versions over the years, great stories get told literally 100s of different ways, that's just a testament to their greatness. But when Disney takes a story and elevates it (Disney'fies it), it's no longer just some stupid Lifetime Network re-make with Meredith Baxter Birney and that guy from Animal House...it gets pushed up to the front of Pop Culture's line of honor. That's why it'd better be good.
Surprisingly, one of the best versions of Mr. Dickens' beloved story is the 1962 Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol. I'll wait while you stop laughing........ (whistles, looks at fingernails). The 1962 airing is not only the first animated Holiday Special ever aired (Rudolph came out in 1964), it's in my opinion, one of the best of all time, AND one of the best re-tellings of the Dicken's classic. It has sadness, heart, wonderfully surreal animation, the voice talents of the great Jim Backus, and the all original music is fantastic. The music was written by the Broadway team of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (Funny Girl). The actual story is framed in the typical Mister Magoo cartoon shtick, like he's blindly rushing to perform in a play, but when the curtain opens and the actual story starts, it's like Magoo is truly a thespian master! It's a friggin cartoon, yet wonderful in its simplicity.
Sadly, it gets lost every year in the hype of all the other specials. I recommend taking the time and searching it out.
As far as the Disney's, A Christmas Carol goes? I'm excited to see it, but it'll have to work real hard to be "Magoo Good".
Check this out: So much sadness captured in one song. He's singing a duet with his young self, my goodness...pure genius!