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Disney’s A Christmas Carol

Yup, pretty much the spitting image of Jim Carrey.

Yup, pretty much the spitting image of Jim Carrey.

Rated 4.0

In Disney’s A Christmas Carol, writer-director Robert Zemeckis turns his favorite toy loose on Charles Dickens’ most beloved story. The toy is motion capture, or “mo-cap,” a digital animation process that records the movements of actors and translates them into computer-animated characters. Since his first mo-cap movie, 2004’s The Polar Express, Zemeckis has pretty much abandoned directing live-action movies, and with this version of Carol, he hopes to have a holiday perennial to stand beside his Express.

Zemeckis gives us Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens’ avatar of avarice, and the nature of mo-cap is such that Carrey can play Scrooge at every stage of his life, from childhood through youth and adulthood to his present-day (i.e., 1843) state of wizened, sullen meanness. Beyond that, Zemeckis had a nifty inspiration: Carrey also plays the three Spirits of Christmas—Past, Present and Yet to Come (though the latter, in keeping with Dickens, is little more than a shadow and a skeletal hand).

Other multiple roles are taken by Gary Oldman as Bob Cratchit and Marley’s ghost (another nifty idea, that), as well as Tiny Tim; Robin Wright Penn as Scrooge’s sister Fan and his lost love Belle; plus Bob Hoskins and Cary Elwes as various passersby. Single roles are essayed by Colin Firth, suitably hearty as Scrooge’s nephew Fred; and Lesley Manville, who particularly shines as Mrs. Cratchit.

So how is the movie? Do we even need another Christmas Carol? Well, no, we don’t; we haven’t needed one since 1951 and Brian Desmond-Hurst’s definitive Scrooge with Alastair Sim—not merely the best version of A Christmas Carol, but the correct version, and the finest screen adaptation of any Dickens work (yes, I include David Lean’s classic Great Expectations). But ’tis the season, and there’s always room for a new take on the story from someone who loves it as much as we do—and Zemeckis truly loves it; his affection for the sights and sounds of Dickens’ snowy yuletide London gleams from every frame.

Often, it’s true, Zemeckis gives us reason to suspect that he loves his mo-cap even more than he loves Dickens. He sends the camera rocketing over the rooftops, through the trees and down along the cobblestones at more or less the speed of sound, while the audience clutches armrests and cowers behind their 3-D glasses. At times we feel as if we’re on A Christmas Carol: The Ride. Such roller-coaster shenanigans made some dramatic and structural sense in The Polar Express (which, after all, was about a magical train ride). But they don’t add much to the story here; Zemeckis does these tricks simply because he can.

And while mo-cap has made strides in five years, it’s still not a very fluid process when it comes to capturing the subtleties of human facial expressions; characters tend to look Botoxed, or like animatronic mannequins. As with The Polar Express, Disney’s A Christmas Carol works best if you think of it as just the coolest Christmas store window ever.

Still, the heart of the story is there, and Zemeckis honors and respects it. Carrey’s Scrooge is skeleton skinny, with a chin and nose like a nutcracker, and Carrey’s vocal expressiveness compensates for the loss of the amazing plasticity of his live-action face. And if Zemeckis plays some of the early scenes for gentle laughs—especially the confrontation between Scrooge and Marley’s ghost—he counters these with moments of genuine terror later on, as Scrooge’s terrible future becomes clear to him. (Along with all the holly wreaths and God-bless-us-every-ones, Dickens’ original subtitle was A Ghost Story of Christmas; Zemeckis well understands this.)

Disney’s A Christmas Carol doesn’t dethrone Brian Desmond-Hurst’s 1951 masterpiece; no movie ever will. The ghost of Alastair Sim stalks any actor who attempts to follow him, as inexorably as Jacob Marley haunted Ebenezer Scrooge. Like Sim before him, Jim Carrey is an actor known chiefly for comedy who plays Scrooge with a straight face. And even if the mo-cap process makes his face a little too straight, Carrey makes a worthy and honorable job of it.