Well, this is disheartening: “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” decked the halls — and its competition — at the megaplex this weekend, earning $31 million in North America and guaranteeing that Robert Zemeckis gets to keep his mad dreams of motion-capture features alive for another few years.
This makes me sad. Do you realize that Zemeckis hasn’t made a live-action feature since “Cast Away”, nine years ago? He’s spent most of this decade burrowing deeper and deeper into the digital realm, and what do we have to show for it? “The Polar Express”, “Beowulf” and the new thing.
Zemeckis hasn’t gone crazy or anything; he’s just followed his obsessions as far as he could, and ended up in the wrong place. His movies used to be light on their feet and filled with cinematic joy; around the time of “Forrest Gump”, they started to slip into self-importance and self-consciousness, with digital dazzle standing in for emotional beats, and now — with the exception of “Cast Away”, which strikes a balance between its elaborate construction and the rawness of Tom Hanks’ performance — they’ve been consumed entirely by technique. (There’s an interesting parallel here to Michael Mann, another director led astray by a different digital fetish.)
Dave Kehr, with whom I’ve had several entirely civil arguments about Zemeckis’ decline, interviewed the director for the New York Times’ holiday movie special last weekend; it’s a good piece, and you should read it. At no point does the director of “Used Cars”, “Back to the Future” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” acknowledge he now traffics exclusively in empty light shows, but I suppose that’s to be expected.
The real tragedy here? “Monster House” — which Zemeckis produced, but didn’t direct — is still the most entertaining example of motion-capture animation, precisely because it doesn’t attempt photo-realistic characters or settings. It embraces the unrealistic possibilities afforded by the process, and avoids most of the traps Zemeckis’ own films fall into. That has to sting.