Friday, November 6, 2009

Not quite "bah, humbug," but....

Jim Carrey helps turn Scrooge into a classic sourpuss.

It's technically impressive, full of fine voice work and early-picture magic. But Disney's A Christmas Carol (sorry Charles Dickens, you've been squeezed out of the title) ultimately substitutes action for the heartbreaking emotion and giddy uplift of Dickens' classic holiday tale.

How technically impressive? If you see A Christmas Carol in 3D, you may be wowed by the ability of director Robert Zemeckis and his legion of artists to create depth in ways that enhance the viewing experience for those not content with standard-issue illusion.

But Zemeckis' performance-capture technique (also employed in The Polar Express and Beowolf) isn't enough to make A Christmas Carol better than any of the many versions that already crowded television screens and theaters. Beyond that, there's something creepy and unreal about the results of performance-capture that makes it impossible -- at least for me -- to forget that I'm watching an elaborate bit of cinematic gimmickry.

The movement of characters often seems a shade too slow, and I keep asking myself, "Why not animate the entire movie or do a live-action version?" (I'm partial to the British feature that starred Alastair Sim as Scrooge, but believe Jim Carrey, whose voice talents are on display in this project, would have done a masterful job with the part.)

The Scrooge on view in Zemeckis' holiday bauble is a stooped old man with a hooked nose and pointy chin. He sometimes looks vaguely like Carrey. Gary Oldman (as Bob Cratchit, Marley and Tiny Tim) does equally well with the movie's voice work. Colin Firth (as Scrooge's nephew) and Bob Hoskins (as Scrooge's first boss, Mr. Fezziwig) also are up to the story's voice demands.

Zemeckis moves his camera with agility and does plenty to justify the use of CGI and 3D, but for me, the movie -- engaging at first -- inspired increasing resistance. Sure, this approach lends itself to booming sound effects and various action set pieces, but the movie proves more eye-popping than enthralling.

As for those ghosts who visit Scrooge on Christmas Eve: They're more like fun house effects than the voices of admonition that have populated better versions of this venerable and much-told Dickens' tale. Is it possible to be overwhelmed by technique and underwhelmed by storytelling at the same time? It was for me.

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