Saturday, September 21

Screen Scene: A Christmas Carol


Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” has been adapted in just about every imaginable way, but this latest version, a motion capture, three-dimensional, IMAX behemoth from Disney and Robert Zemeckis, might just be the strangest.

In the run-up to the film’s release, which included suffocating levels of marketing and a traveling train of promotional exhibits, it seemed that the latest “A Christmas Carol” would be a blatant Jim Carrey vehicle.

Carrey plays (or at least lends his voice to) multiple roles, including Ebenezer Scrooge, as if a Disney movie were the right place to prove he’s a better actor than “The Number 23″ let on. But it turns out there’s no room for Carrey’s star power to shine ““ “A Christmas Carol” is all about Zemeckis, who wrote, directed and produced the film.

This is Zemeckis’ third experiment with motion capture, after “The Polar Express” in 2004 and “Beowulf” in 2007, and it’s clear from the opening sequence that this is a man in love with his technology. Zemeckis wastes no opportunity to send his imaginary camera swooping and careening through the digitally rendered streets of London, soaring past weather vanes, over rooftops and through a Christmas wreath even before the opening credits.

His use of 3D is cool in a gimmicky kind of way, but the motion capture is almost painfully awkward. Scrooge’s face is appropriately wrinkled and haggard, but pretty much everyone else in the movie looks disproportioned, unfinished and creepy. Tiny Tim’s (Gary Oldman) eyes are big and bulging, the Ghost of Christmas Present (Carrey) has a distractingly wispy beard and Scrooge’s nephew Fred (Colin Firth) moves about as realistically as the animatronic bears at Disneyland. At the worst of times, “A Christmas Carol” looks like an incredibly expensive video game that no one gets to play.

As if it wasn’t enough to throw a huge heap of digital effects at Dickens’ classic little tale, Zemeckis apparently decided he needed to make it scary too. “A Christmas Carol” is far louder and more abrupt than it needs to be. There was no reason for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Carrey) to send a horse-drawn carriage of doom after Scrooge for a minutes-long chase sequence ““ anyone who knows the original story will find it baffling, and young people will just be terrified. One child in the theater I attended started bawling when the Cratchit family mourned the death of Tiny Tim, and I overhead another admitting after the film that “A Christmas Carol” was “too freaky” for him.

As for Carrey, he tries out an inexplicable melding of accents for Scrooge’s voice, and is mostly indistinguishable in his other roles. The rest of the cast is almost excessively famous, but it’s nearly impossible to pick out Oldman, Cary Elwes or Robin Wright Penn (Firth, unfortunately, is all too obviously the horribly weird-looking Fred). And to top it all off, Andrea Bocelli sings over the credits, as if Zemeckis needed to remind us one last time that he spent a ton of money on this movie.

I wish he hadn’t. Dickens’ story is about humanity, generosity, warmth and kindness ““ the little, tender things in life. This film is about throwing together the most dazzling special effects on the most enormous screen in the most dimensions possible, so who cares if anyone sheds a tear when Tiny Tim proclaims, “God bless us, everyone”? It’s hard not to think that this overblown and soulless movie is the antithesis of everything Dickens’ writing stood for.

Perhaps if Zemeckis watched his own movie, he’d realize that life is about the people, not money or the fancy technology it buys. May three spirits haunt him in his sleep.

E-mail Goodman at [email protected]

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