Like a constantly regifted necktie, Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol always turns up for the holidays. So many versions of Ebenezer Scrooge's redemption are available that creating a new one doesn't seem necessary anymore.
Hesitation is humbug to director Robert Zemeckis, so infatuated with motion capture animation he introduced in The Polar Express that remaking A Christmas Carol is a natural thing to do, simply because nobody could do it this way before. Zemeckis has a point, but that can't prevent his version from being too familiar to excite beyond the technology.
Zemeckis also adapted Dickens' novella perhaps too reverently for modern entertainment value. A Christmas Carol is always at odds with itself, too dark and devoid of humor to captivate children who'll want to attend simply because it stars Jim Carrey (who isn't working for laughs here) and can be viewed in 3-D, as many childish treats are these days. Dialogue is lifted almost verbatim from Dickens' 19th century prose, which may go in one tiny, collective ear and out the other.
A Christmas Carol will make money, for sure. Making lifelong fans may be another story.
Carrey plays Scrooge as so many serious actors have before, his familiar voice nearly impossible to identify beneath the forced English accent and reedy tenor of an aged miser. He's also billed as the first and final ghosts Scrooge encounters, but you can't easily tell.
Motion capture animation — basically "painting" over physical performance to create a new reality — strips Carrey of almost everything we recognize. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a flickering, whispering candle; the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a shadowy figure that could be anyone going through the motions. Not until Carrey plays the boisterous Ghost of Christmas Present does the spark in Carrey's eyes and voice ignite.
Zemeckis' techno-toy does provide opportunities for thrilling camera movements and perspectives that previous incarnations couldn't. Viewers take virtual flight through London, zipping over, around and through objects, as if we're clutching Scrooge's nightshirt while ghosts take him for a ride. The trickery goes a bit too far when the third ghost chases a miniature Scrooge through city streets; it could be the template for a video game or a theme park ride (and with Disney producing, that's a possibility).
Yet, as a tribute to Dickens' practically perfect story, Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol can't avoid its genuine emotional tug when Scrooge wakes up Christmas morning as a new man. Funny, but that's also when nothing is left to tart up with computer trickery. The curmudgeon's conversion figuratively brings the movie and Carrey to life, not that different from his personality escaping from under the Grinch's heavy makeup when that grump grew a heart.
Even at fade out, the question nags: Why remake A Christmas Carol again, if Dickens story is essentially told the same as it ever was, and not in some comical twist like Scrooged or a musical like Scrooge? Motion capture animation is extraordinary eye candy that seems superfluous when human characters are involved. Why work so hard and expensively to do what makeup can?
The answer is provided by Scrooge when he asks a ghost why he's doing all these frightening things and doesn't get an answer: "Oh, because you can." I'll bet Zemeckis smiles each time he hears that.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.
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