Disney's "A Christmas Carol": Bah, humbug!

Robert Zemeckis' 3-D, motion-capture masterwork is oddly flat. And isn't one Jim Carrey enough for any movie?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 6, 2009 1:06AM (EST)

Jim Carrey as Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol."
Jim Carrey as Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol."

Robert Zemeckis' excitable reimagining of the Dickens classic is a triumph of something -- but it's certainly not the Christmas spirit. The movie overflows with fa la la la las and snowflakes and rosy-cheeked Victorians, many of whom are granted numerous opportunities to point right at you, dear audience member. But the 3-D film is flat, the CGI-enhanced characters oddly waxen. In the center of the action is Jim Carrey -- or at least a dead-eyed, doll-like version of Carrey -- playing Scrooge, the ghosts, a younger version of himself, and probably a dozen other parts. As a general rule of thumb, one Jim Carrey is plenty for any movie.

Though motion-capture technology has improved since Zemeckis' prior attempts, "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf," the process still ranks several notches below the Country Bear Jamboree on the suspension-of-disbelief scale. Why is Zemeckis so fond of the technique? And what's up with having the same star play almost all the parts, just as Tom Hanks did in "Polar Express"? Have we learned nothing from "The Klumps"?

At least Dickens' tale, one of the most filmed in all of cinema, gets a fairly faithful translation here. The script itself isn't dumbed down or modernized -- it's faithful to the author's lilting prose and his deeply compassionate, still painfully relevant worldview. "It is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices." Nor does it shy away from the grim horror of Scrooge's adventure: There are plenty of jump-in-your-seat moments designed expressly to make your 5-year-old burst into tears. There are also moments of scary fun, when the action feels quite literally in your face. Undulating spirits melt into the shadows, jaws unhinge and flesh falls away.

But too much of the film is at once overblown and sadly emotionless, and too many of Dickens' lovely words sound hollow. Underneath all the effects, Carrey gets to try on a variety of funny voices and bellow "AAAAAAIEEEEEEE" an awful lot as he careens around with assorted versions of himself. But when Scrooge comes face to face with a grieving Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman, who delivers his lines with subtle stoicism), reeling from the loss of his son, it's like two mannequins blinking at each other. Sure, we can see the wispy hairs on Scrooge's nose, but what does it matter when we can't relate to the anguish in his soul?

Animation doesn't have to be cold. In fact, the medium can convey a wealth of feeling and imagination that traditional live action can't. It didn't matter in the least that the characters in "Up" -- another movie about a misanthropic geriatric -- were Pixar-generated; it was still one of the wittiest, most bittersweet movies of the year. The problem is when effects take precedence over the story itself, when they become as crippling as the chains around Marley. Hey, you want lots of vertigo-inducing scenes of whipping through the London skies? Here's a movie for you. Want a more humanized take on the tale? Stick with the Muppets' version.

For what's essentially a scary story about a mean old man, "A Christmas Carol" remains a perennial source of yuletide inspiration. And why not? It's brisk, action-packed and profoundly redemptive. It's a story of generosity, with a message that all the money in the world doesn't matter if you haven't any heart. And likewise, you can make a 3-D movie in which characters are constantly reaching out of the screen -- and still touch no one. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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A Christmas Carol Disney Movies