Every time I walk into a screening and they hand me a pair of those cheap, plastic, 3-D glasses that makes it looks like we're all at an Urkel Convention, I know what I'm in for:
1. In the opening title sequence, there will be at least one "WOW!" moment where it appears as if something is hovering above the audience or we actually have to dodge some projectile that's coming right at us. It's 3-D! Pretty cool man.
2. As the experience continues, the 3-D effects seem to flatten out, maybe because our senses adjust or perhaps because the filmmakers have only so many ways of immersing us in the technology without going overboard and taking us out of the moment.
3. And then it becomes about the movie. Either the story works or it doesn't. Let's face it, 3-D has never quite reached the level of 3-D. I'd say 2 1/2-D is more like it.
So it goes with Disney's "A Christmas Carol," a wiggy, wacky, creepy and ultimately exhausting computer-animated take on the classic tale from Robert Zemeckis, who used similar technology for "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf." At times Zemeckis succeeds in creating an amazing, all-encompassing, suitably scary Dickensian world; but then he gives us another loud, obnoxious character that wears out his welcome, another slapstick chase scene, another reason to say, "WTF."
Much to my relief, Jim Carrey doesn't turn Ebenezer Scrooge into another one of those animated characters who riff all over the place, winking at the camera and peppering their monologues with inside jokes. The dialogue is faithful to the source material, and Carrey respects the material.
With his chin and nose jutting out so far they practically meet, his skeletal frame hunched over, Carrey's Scrooge employs a reed-thin voice to great effect, as if Scrooge is so miserly even his speech pattern is minimalist. Carrey also plays all three Christmas ghosts, and while the voicework is stellar, the characters themselves are strange and distracting. Christmas Past is a very creepy man-child with a disembodied head that seems to be aflame all the time, while Christmas Present is a giant, bearded, monstrous figure who laughs uproariously at everything, whether it's funny or not. The Ghost of Christmas Future is a looming shadow and it's suitably scary-----but for some reason in that sequence we wind up watching a miniaturized Scrooge with a helium-voice being chased down streets and alleys by a carriage led by two menacing horses with fiery-red eyes. Um, what?
Each of the motion-capture characters has a startling resemblance to the actor who stood in front of a green screen, giving motion and voice and humanity to their Dickens doppelgangers. Gary Oldman is miscast as Bob Cratchit. With that Oldman-esque face on a very short body, the animated Cratchit looks more like an evil troll than a sympathetic, beleaguered father of many, many children. Robin Wright Penn reminds one of a Disney princess as Scrooge's long-lost love, and Colin Firth looks like he stepped off the set of an animated Jane Austen adaptation to play Scrooge's good-cheer nephew Fred. They all do a fine job, but as always, the motion capture technique coats every face in a chilly veneer, as if they have no soul. This works well when the character is the miserly, miserable Scrooge or one of the taunting ghosts----but Tiny Tim shouldn't look like a little robot alien boy, and we shouldn't be wondering if Cratchit is half-man, half-alien.
"A Christmas Carol" has never been a story for very young children. Before we get to that schmaltzy conclusion, Dickens gives us some pretty scary stuff. Probably the best cinematic adaptation of all was the 1951 British version that used to play on "Family Classics" every December, with that unforgettable
performance from Alistar Sim as Scrooge. Watch it again now and you'll be surprised at how dark that film is, in looks and style.
My problem with this version is the manner in which Zemeckis tries to give us the chills. When that weird little Christmas Past ghost dances about with his head on fire, when the Ghost of Christmas Present suddenly morphs into something out of a Stephen King story, when the Ghost of Christmas Future chases Scrooge all over the place as the music booms, it feels as if the spirit of the original story has been pushed aside for all the bells and whistles.
Let's face it, there have been so many takes on "A Christmas Carol" by now------more than 50 movies and TV specials, God knows how many theatrical adaptations------that it might be impossible to reinvent the tale, even with cutting-edge technology. Granted, this is "A Christmas Carol" like you've never seen it before----but that's not necessarily a good thing.