Review: Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009)

christmas-carol-2009

Wild and wacky action starring Ebenezer Scrooge. Because that makes sense.

I happened to watch the 3D animated adaptation of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol by Disney, so here are a few observations about that.

This story is so well known it’s been adapted even by Disney multiple times. But if someone doesn’t know: it’s about the miserly and misanthropic old man Ebenezer Scrooge and how he’s transformed after being visited by four ghosts on the night before Christmas. In this case, Scrooge among others is played by Jim Carrey. It sounds like an odd choice, but whatever works is all right, and it does work. The voice acting is good. The animation is, too. The film was nice to look at, although I wasn’t wowed enough to buy all the showy antics.

The story and scenes follow the original very closely — and the dialogue even more so, almost word for word much of the time. It’s an interesting choice, and it’s fun to hear good actors make that kind of dialogue with the long sentences sound almost natural. There are some subtle changes to the dialogue to make it more understandable, but even after that, some of it can sound a little cryptic, as in the case of the Ghost of Christmas Present. In any case, a lot of the small adjustments to the original dialogue and scenes are actually an improvement over the Dickens story, condensing it and making it run more smoothly. But then there are the other kind of adjustments…

The biggest problem with the movie is that it tries to be funny. This starts right off with the “Marley’s ghost” scene, which I found to be awkward and unenjoyable — too oppressive to be funny but with too much fooling around to be anything else, either. Looking back, this was probably the worst scene, so it does get better. The rest of the time, it just feels like there are pointless little additions. Goofing around in a modern manner doesn’t seem to fit the story, perhaps because the rest of it is so close to the original. (It’s not like Mickey’s Christmas Carol where the ghost of Marley was funny — because he was Goofy.) Overlapping the attempted humour, there’s gratuitous “action” that seems inappropriate or pointless, like mostly realistic looking people suddenly making unrealistic acrobatic moves, and Scrooge’s visions having added high-speed flying or chases. The latter aren’t entirely out of place because the visions are supposed to be harrowing, but they don’t add anything either and aren’t particularly funny. In fact, I suspect they’re in no small part filler to stretch the story to movie length. About the only really funny part was in the end when Scrooge was high on Christmas, and one can see why — that part was supposed to go like that.

In the end, I did enjoy the movie, but not as a comedy. I watched it as a close, well animated, well acted adaptation of the original with some pointless and mildly irritating additions. I have to give it a low score for being an unfunny comedy, but I wouldn’t recommend against watching it if you’re interested. Everything else besides the few glaring bad things is good.

Rating: 2.5/5

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Review: What Does a Martian Look Like? by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart

what-does-a-martian-look-likeCreatures… that are born pregnant; with twenty different sexes; that eat their own children; that can survive without water for a quarter of a billion years. Absurd? Not at all.

These are creatures alive on planet Earth. And they show us just how different alien life could be from anything we know.

What does a Martian Look Like? The Science of Extraterrestrial Life (also known in other editions as Evolving the Alien) sets out to do something seemingly impossible: to scientifically describe something we have never seen. The question it asks is what we can know about extraterrestrial life. Of course, we have never found any of that. And yet, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart also argue against imagining it will be just like life on Earth. Continue reading

What does “good” mean? 1: What’s the question?

1. The question

Introduction

What concept could be better known to everyone than that of goodness? Certainly people are adept at using it, together with related terms like “bad”, “right”, “should”, etc. If I say that you should lose weight, or that this is a good pencil, or that eating meat is wrong, everyone understands what I mean. All of those examples relate to different kinds of goodness/badness, but they’re all varieties of it.

good-clouds

It’s hard to decide what would be a good picture for an article about goodness.

So everyone can use terms related to various kinds of goodness. But hardly anyone can really explain what it means for something to be good. That is to say, what if the question we ask is not whether it’s right to eat meat, but what does it mean to say that it’s right? As we will see in the next section, this question is much more difficult than it looks.

Continue reading

An unhappy atheist’s tale

Some time ago, I had an appointment with an optometrist at the city centre. I got there a little too early, so I decided to just wait in the street for a few minutes. While I was doing that (ie. nothing), two women I didn’t know approached me. It was a bit too long ago for me to remember the ensuing conversation in detail, but I can give the general idea.

One of the things they asked me was whether I had heard about Jesus Christ. This was in Finland, but it was about the same as asking that from someone in America. Maybe even more absurd, I don’t know. How would you not know about Christianity? Around 80% of people in Finland belong to the same Protestant church. It’s a secular society, to be sure, not at all like the US. People belong to the religion but are not actively religious, and religion has very little place in politics. Nevertheless, how could you not have heard about the basics? We even teach it in schools (just not in biology class like people in the US want to do), though admittedly based on what church people belong to (or don’t). Yet this isn’t even the first time I’ve heard religion peddlers ask that question. I don’t know what’s behind it. Maybe it’s just a conversation starter.

Whatever the case, the two women were clearly bent on selling some brand of Christianity to me. I was uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be rude or argumentative. Continue reading

6 stupid things done by natural selection

When we think of evolution, guided by natural selection, we tend to think it leads to “better” organisms. And in some sense, it often does. Forget the idea of a ladder where you always get “higher” organisms as you go up. It’s way more complicated than that. But even putting that aside, even if we just consider organisms adapting to new environments rather than becoming “better”, it seems natural selection guides things in a purposeful direction.

That does happen, but it’s easy to get the wrong impression. If you look at some feature of an organism that’s well adapted to its environment, like a monkey’s hands and tail used for climbing or a flower’s colours that attract insects, you’ll get an explanation like this: In these circumstances, it was useful for the species to have that trait, so natural selection favoured that trait and the species developed in that direction. Those who had the trait could outcompete those who didn’t, so they had more descendants, and so natural selection gave the species that trait.

It seems like this is the very basis of evolution by natural selection. Well, kind of. But it’s oversimplified. The problem is that it often leads to the reasoning “If trait A is good for survival and its alternative trait B is not, then natural selection must end up choosing trait B.” But if you ask real evolutionary biologists, there are a number of ways in which it does the opposite, and those make perfect sense once you look at the details too… Continue reading

Freedom, responsibility, and higher-level laws

In this post, I present an argument for the following thesis: When determinism holds, a person’s action is free and the person is responsible for the action if determinism does not hold on the relevant higher level on which the action is being described.

Let’s start by unpacking what that means: Continue reading

Three philosophies: Knowledge, wisdom and… money?

money-or-somethingI’ve talked before about Nicholas Maxwell’s criticism of current practice and philosophy of science. I’ve written about it in Finnish here and here; here is the website of the group dedicated to this idea.

To put it shortly, Maxwell’s idea is this: Science commonly takes the idea of objectivity too far and in the wrong direction. Its underlying philosophy is what he calls the philosophy of knowledge. This emphasizes that only empirically testable claims have a place in science, as opposed to metaphysics or values.

This may sound like a good idea, and it would be, given the right interpretation. But it’s being given the wrong interpretation. Values or ideologies must not affect the results obtained from science, but they should guide what resources are spent on. When you are not allowed to consider values even at this point, you often end up spending resources on something useless or harmful. So developing countries may have much more need for new technologies or researched solutions, but there’s more money in solving first-world problems. Similarly, metaphysics must not be more important than empirical results, but every theory has background metaphysics anyway, so acknowledging those would allow scientists to understand better what they’re doing. Continue reading